A JUBILANT Geoff Clark has declared his legal victory over columnist Andrew Bolt as like cutting the head off a serpent.
Bolt lost his race discrimination case in the Federal Court of Australia yesterday, which was brought by Mr Clark and eight other Aboriginal identities.
“The sword of justice has struck and cut off the head of the serpent,” the former ATSIC chairman said. “Let’s hope it doesn’t grow two heads.”
Justice Mordecai Bromberg yesterday delivered a stinging judgment in which he found Bolt had contravened section 18 (c) of the Racial Discrimination Act in two articles published in the Herald-Sun in 2009.
“I am satisfied that fair-skinned Aboriginal people (or some of them) were reasonably likely ... to have been offended, insulted, humiliated or intimidated by the imputations conveyed by the newspaper articles,” Justice Bromberg told a packed Melbourne courtroom.
Bolt huddled inside with his legal advisers.
Bolt and his team waited in the court for about 20 minutes after the judgment. When they appeared outside, Bolt made a short address to the waiting media pack.
“This is a terrible day for free speech in this country,” he said, which drew heckles from some supporters of the applicants in the case.
Bolt responded with a glare and an appeal. “Can I at least have my free speech now,” he asked before returning to his hand-written, prepared text.
“It is particularly a restriction on the freedom of all Australians to discuss multiculturalism and how people identify themselves. I argued then and I argue now that we should not insist on the differences between us but focus instead on what unites us as human beings. Thank-you.”
With that he walked off, declining to answer questions about whether he would issue an apology or mount an appeal to the full bench of the Federal Court. Bolt’s legal team had previously flagged its intention to appeal in the event of a loss.
Outside court, the applicants in the case, including Wayne Atkinson and the initiator of the case, Pat Eatock, were jubilant.
“We’re so pleased with the outcome, for all our people,” said Dr Atkinson, an academic. “Especially for the younger people coming through, who really shouldn’t have to deal with that continual stuff to have to justify their identity.”
Ms Eatock, a 72-year-old Aboriginal activist, said: “It was never about free speech. It has always been a question of professionalism and the reality is that the original articles were not professional journalism.”
They were among the nine “fair-skinned Aborigines”, as Justice Bromberg called them, who brought the action against Bolt and his employer, the Herald and Weekly Times (as publisher of the Herald Sun), over two Bolt articles published in the paper in 2009 and two posts on Bolt’s blog on the paper’s website.
They had argued that Bolt’s writings offended, upset and demeaned them and that the articles had sought to imply that they identified as Aborigines in order to gain career, social or other advantage.
Bolt’s argument that as lighter-skinned Aborigines the nine had multiple identities open to them meant the case became unofficially a test of definitions of Aboriginality.
Officially, though, it was a test of the balance between free speech and protection from offence.
Justice Bromberg came down in favour of racial tolerance.
“People should be free to fully identify with their race without fear of public disdain or loss of esteem for so identifying,” he said.
“On the basis of my findings, I am satisfied that each of Mr Bolt and the Herald & Weekly Times engaged in conduct which contravened section 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act.”