‘Harming Women with Words’ – La Trobe Law School Academics invited to present to Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry into Anti-Vilification Laws

This Thursday, La Trobe Law School’s Nicole Shackleton and Dr Laura Griffin, along with co-author Danielle Walt, will appear before the Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry into anti-vilification laws, their possible expansion, and/or extension of protections beyond existing classes, to speak about the importance of addressing gender in Victoria’s hate speech laws.

The hearing will be streamed live.

Watch Nicole, Laura and Danielle appear before the Committee at 10.30am, Thursday 12th March here: https://www.parliament.vic.gov.au/video-and-audio/live-broadcasting

The Inquiry into current anti-vilification laws was announced by the Victorian Labour Government following the introduction of a Private Members Bill into the Upper House by Fiona Patten MP. The Racial and Religious Tolerance Amendment Bill 2019 proposes to amend the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act 2001 (Vic) to extend anti-vilification protections to several attributes – gender identity, sex characteristics, sexual orientation, disability and, in an Australian first, gender. Progress of the bill has been suspended pending the outcome of the Inquiry.

The committee responsible for this Inquiry (the Legislative Assembly’s Legal and Social Issues Committee) invited Nicole, Laura and Danielle after receiving their written submission in December 2019. Their submission argued that current federal and Victorian laws do not adequately address Gendered Hate Speech (GHS).

Hate speech directed against women, particularly GHS perpetrated on social media and other online platforms, was said in the submission to be ‘so pervasive and insidious that it is a normalised feature of everyday public discourse’ in Australia. Hence, they argued that in order to address the current gap in the law and protect against GHS, Victoria’s anti-vilification laws should be extended to include gender as a protected attribute.

The submission was based on previous research concerning GHS, as well as current research by Nicole Shackleton for her ongoing PhD research on Australian laws and GHS.

In 2018, Nicole, Laura, Danielle and another co-author, Tanya D’Souza, published an article – ‘Harming Women with Words: The Failure of Australian Law to Prohibit Gendered Hate Speech’ – in the UNSW Law Journal. This article was also accompanied by a piece in The Conversation on the gender gap in Australia’s hate speech laws, across all jurisdictions.

These articles looked at the various kinds of harm caused by GHS, including economic harm, silencing women and preventing them from fully participating in civil society. GHS also perpetuates gender-based violence (GBV), as sexist and misogynist language reinforces strict gender norms, which has been linked to GBV in government reports. The authors argue that failing to prohibit vilification on grounds of gender legitimises hostility against women as a form of prejudice not worth addressing in hate speech laws.

Building on these articles, Nicole and Laura’s submission to the Inquiry also included preliminary findings from Nicole’s PhD research. As part of this project, Nicole has conducted interviews with 25 participants. These included women who have been targeted by GHS, as well as experts, policy makers and lawyers with experience in this area. This research confirms that GHS causes direct, personal, economic and serious harm to those who are targeted.

As canvassed in the submission, legal definitions of GHS could be modelled on the two most common forms of anti-hate speech legislation – ‘community-focused’ and ‘victim-focused’. And importantly, GHS is used to target particular groups of women – such as journalists, athletes, women of colour, lesbians and transwomen. GHS also has unique features when it occurs in online spaces.

However, there are potential risks associated with law reform to address GHS. For example, such laws may have little or no impact. However, even when enforcement may be difficult or rare, anti-hate speech laws have an important symbolic function, by rejecting prejudice and recognising harms that hate speech causes.

Another risk is that laws against GHS may be selectively enforced or co-opted by already powerful groups in society to silence minority or vulnerable groups. For example, laws against GHS could be used to silence women’s narratives of victimisation and misogyny such as in the #MeToo movement, or silence speech about the connections between gender and racism, colonialism and white supremacy. For these reasons, the submission recommended that anti-GHS legislation clarify its purpose as protection of historically marginalised groups.

Based on an analysis of these issues, the submission made four Recommendations:

  1. Parliament should introduce legislation to protect against GHS. This could be done in one of several ways.
  2. To protect against co-opting of anti-GHS legislation, such legislation should make it clear that its purpose is to protect against historically marginalised groups.
  3. Sufficient powers be granted to the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commissioner, the Victoria Police, and other relevant investigative agencies or tribunals to compel social media companies and other internet platforms to release information to law enforcement and other investigative agencies for the purpose of investigating, mediating and prosecuting a complaint.
  4. Programs be designed, funded and implemented to educate the public, media, government departments and police about changes to the law that are designed to protect against GHS.

The Legislative Assembly Legal and Social Issues Committee will be holding hearings until late March, and its final report is due in September 2020.

The link to the submission is located here: https://www.parliament.vic.gov.au/lsic-la/article/4333

The link to the UNSW Law Journal Article ‘Harming women with words’ is located here: http://www.unswlawjournal.unsw.edu.au/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/DSouza-et-al.pdf

By Ms Nicole Shackleton and Dr Laura Griffin

La Trobe