Cartoonist for the Australian, Bill Leaks, is no stranger to controversy. He seeks it out and considers it part of his job as an artist to be provocative and a catalyst for debate.

In the wake of allegations of child abuse at the Northern Territory’s Don Dale facility, Leak produced a cartoon depicting an alcoholic Indigenous father who does not know his son’s name when a police office returns the child to him.

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The cartoon was widely condemned as racist for stereotyping Indigenous Australians as drunks and neglectful parents. The fact that the police officer is also Indigenous, did little to placate the general feeling that this was an unfair portrayal of an already marginalised community.

Leak defended his work and released another cartoon decrying his treatment by the Twitterati. It betrayed an ignorance on Leak’s part of what free speech means. He had every right to offer an opinion in the public sphere, but equally, those who found the cartoon objectionable had an equal right to condemn it. Sadly, that is not the end of the matter.

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Leak is now being investigated by the Human Rights Commission for possibly contravening section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. He hasn’t. But the fact debate and discourse is not enough and he is now under the legal microscope will only stoke the campaign flames to see the RDA amended or repealed.

I rarely agree with conservative columnist, also from the Australian, Janet Albrechtsen but it is difficult to argue with her recent article which concludes that there is a double standard in how free speech is applied in Australia.

Free speech has to include speech we do not like, speech we find offensive, and speech that may insult our religion, political views, nation, or general sense of morality. If we do not accept that simple premise, we invite the government to play the role of national censor – a dark path to go down.

If you do not like Bill Leak, then do not support his work, do not buy The Australian, write articles, start a Facebook page; use your own free speech to respond! But do not use your own sense of offence and outrage as legitimisation for getting the state involved. Do not be so utterly arrogant to think your outrage must be universally applied and no one is free to think, maybe he has a point.

Be it the Danish cartoon in Jyllands-Posten depicting the Islamic prophet Muhammad with a bomb on his head or satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo’s numerous incendiary front pages, free speech is worthless if it is forced to carry the caveat; “so long as no one gets upset”.

The Danish cartoon that resulted in global riots and multiple deaths.

The Danish cartoon that resulted in global riots and multiple deaths.

 

Under the guise of cultural sensitivity, many major newspapers refused to reprint these cartoons. That is the choice of the editors and, ultimately, the readers and subscribers who finance them. Each media outlet can come to their own decision about whether showing the cartoons is in the public interest.

Staff at Charlie Hendo were murdered in response to their cartoons.

Staff at Charlie Hendo were murdered in response to their cartoons.

 

What we should never accept, however, is an environment where the media is afraid to publish cartoons (or indeed articles) for fear of violent reprisals. More Orwellian still would be an environment where people are afraid to even discuss issues on social media for fear of violence on the one hand or government censorship on the other.

I fully support the right of the Danish cartoonist to depict Muhammad and I fully support the right of Charlie Hebdo to poke fun at religion. As such, I also support the right of Bill Leak to draw whatever he likes. It is the only way to be consistent.

I don’t agree with Leak. In fact, I think he’s suggestion that poor parenting is at the root of Aboriginal detention is insulting and overly simplistic. For that matter, I think the Danish cartoon was bigoted and an unfair stereotype of a huge group.

Be that as it may, the only response to speech you disagree with in an enlightened society is more speech, and better speech. The answer is never violence, nor is it dragging Bill Leak before the courts. The court of public opinion is just fine.

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