Victorian Member of Parliament and leader of the Reason Party Fiona Patten has announced a push to introduce a bill to the Victorian parliament “designed to stop trolling in its tracks”. Her proposal is to alter the existing Racial and Religious Tolerance Act to give it wider coverage.

Her press release states:

Racial and Religious Tolerance Amendment Bill 2019 will extend Victoria’s anti-vilification laws – currently only reserved to racial and religious vilification – to hate speech based on gender, as well as disability, sexual orientation, gender identity and sex characteristics.”

At the Online Hate Prevention Institute we’ve been monitoring all forms of hate since 2012. Racism and religious vilification are the most common form of hate targeting a segment of the community, but when it comes to cyberbullying individuals, gender plays an enormous role. The hate directed against women almost always makes use of gendered based hate. The messages of hate often include sexual references and messages relating to sexual violence are common. Such comments are often designed to drive women off the platform all together. In some cases they are part of an coordinated and constant bombardment which comes from many different users and therefore makes it far harder to take effective technical action such as blocking the perpetrators.

The distinction between the bullying of individuals and attacks on segments of the community is important here. There is already a Victorian law against serious bullying (including online) and it carries a penalty 20 times higher than that for serious racial or religious vilification. Brodie’s Law can into effect in 2011. As the Department of Justice and Community Safety explains:

Brodie’s Law applies to bullying occurring anywhere in the community, such as workplaces, schools, sporting clubs and on the internet including email or social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

Bullying is often characterised by a course of conduct that can include behaviour such as threats and abusive and offensive words or conduct. Serious bullying may also include conduct or behaviour that is intended, or could reasonably be expected, to cause the victim of the bullying to engage in suicidal thoughts or thoughts or actions that involve self-harm.

The more general attacks, that is those not seeking to bully a specific individual, would however be assisted with a new law. TO send the message most effectively, however, it should be a new stand alone law and not an alteration to the existing Racial and Religious Tolerance Act.

The law sends a strong signal about the values of our society and what is and is not acceptable in our community. It does this regardless of how often it is actually used. The law against serious religious vilification, passed in 2001, was used for the first time in 2017. Adding new laws against other forms of hate speech won’t necessarily lead to many prosecutions, particularly if it is modelled on the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act 2001 (Vic) which has a high threshold before criminal action can be pursued, but it will send a positive signal.

A law modelled on the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act and extending coverage to gender, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity and sex characteristics, in addition to the coverage on race and religious belief / practice, would provide a message and some additional protection again hate targeting segments of the population on these grounds. It would be possible to further extend this message and legal protection to include hate based on characteristics such as political views, union membership and refugee / asylum seeker status. There is value in this when it comes to hate targeting a group. 

As mentioned, when it comes to bullying of individuals, whether it occurs on the basis of race, religion, gender, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, sex characteristics any other specific basis or no basis at all, Victoria already has a strong laws in place against such bullying. Brodie’s Law, which commenced in June 2011 is a law against serious bullying which carries a penalty of up to 10 years imprison. That’s a far more higher penalty than the 6 month imprisonment for serious racial or religious vilification. The proposed laws won’t be as effective as Brodie’s Law in protecting individuals, and as currently proposed, as an amendment to the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act, their substantial effect would be to weaken the message that Act currently sends. On the other hand, if such laws were introduced as a separate Act or series of Acts, modelled on the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act, they would send a useful message and potentially also have some positive effect against hate targeting groups of people based on the listed characteristics which would be protected. Their additional protection in the case of the bulling of an individual would, however, be minimal as in those cases Brodie’s Law will usually be a better fit.

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