Greg Roberts, Australian (Sydney), April 4, 2006
Academic Andrew Fraser will defy the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission by not apologising to the Sudanese community for his study linking African refugees to high crime rates.
In a landmark ruling that raises fresh questions about the limits to which academics can engage in public debate, HREOC chairman John von Doussa has found Professor Fraser’s comments were unlawful because they amounted to a “sweeping generalisation” that was not backed by research.
Professor Fraser was suspended last year from teaching at Sydney’s Macquarie University over his comments about Sudanese refugees in Australia.
Sudanese Darfurian Union secretary Safi Hareer complained to the human rights commission that Professor Fraser breached the Racial Discrimination Act in a letter published in the Parramatta Sun newspaper.
The letter said experience showed an expanding black population was a “sure-fire recipe” for increased crime and violence.
In a letter received by Professor Fraser yesterday, Mr von Doussa rejected his submission that his comments were made for “genuine academic purposes in the public interest”.
Mr von Doussa said while the legislation allowed for fair comment on matters of public interest and for genuine academic discussion, the comments were not made with “sufficient constraints and proportionality”.
Comments for academic purposes were expected to reflect standards such as balanced arguments and be well-researched, but Professor Fraser had made “sweeping generalisations” not supported by research.
Mr von Doussa asked Professor Fraser to respond to Mr Hareer’s demand that he publish a public apology to members of the Sudanese community acknowledging that he had engaged in unlawful conduct.
But Professor Fraser told The Australian he would not apologise to anyone.
“Even those who disagree with me should be appalled at this attack on the freedom of academic debate,” he said.
“This gives the lie to all those politicians who’ve claimed that racial hatred legislation would not curb freedom of expression in Australia.”
Mr Hareer’s lawyer, George Newhouse, said he would discuss with his client the prospect of pursuing the matter in the Federal Court.
“This is not a question of freedom of speech,” Mr Newhouse said. “This is about how far you can go in spewing your bile on other people because of the colour of their skin.”
NSW Jewish Board of Deputies president David Knoll, who helped Mr Hareer prepare his complaint, hailed the HREOC decision as an important milestone.
“I have no difficulty with legitimate academic discourse but there is no such thing as freedom of hatred,” Mr Knoll said.
But Council for Civil Liberties president Terry O’Gorman said the decision was disturbing.
“Freedom of speech does not just mean the freedom to express views which concur with your views,” Mr O’Gorman said. “Extremist views fall under the umbrella of freedom of speech.”