JSI seminar : What does it mean to 'offend', 'insult' 'humiliate' and 'intimidate'?

24 August 2017


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JSI seminar: What does it mean to 'offend', 'insult' 'humiliate' and 'intimidate'? Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act(Cth) and the problem of harm

Speaker: Dr Sarah Sorial, University of Wollongong

There has been significant public debate about the wording of section 18C of the Commonwealth Racial Discrimination Act (RDA), specifically in relation to the words "offend" and "insult." The inclusion of these words in the offence, it is argued, is not only too broad and too vague, but also unduly restricts freedom of speech. Part of the problem is that the legislation does not define the key terms - offend, insult, humiliate and intimidate, or establish a harm threshold - and so leaves itself open to the charge that it is too imprecise to have any meaningful legal content.

In this paper, Sarah Sorial takes up this definitional challenge with reference to Joel Feinberg's discussion of harm and its relation to hurt and offense. She argues that while the terms offend, insult, humiliate and intimidate may be conceptually different, and may not necessarily cause harm in and of themselves, they are in fact closely interrelated. Words that offend, insult, intimidate or humiliate, when uttered in particular contexts, can and do cause harm. Harm is defined in terms of setbacks or damage to a person's interests and can be understood in both an objective and subjective way. Dr Sorial argues that because there are compelling reasons for restricting speech that causes harm more generally, and because speech that offends, insults, humiliates and intimidates, can also cause harm (as she will demonstrate), there is nothing unduly restrictive about s18C in its current form.

About the Speaker

Dr Sarah Sorial is a senior lecturer in the Philosophy Program in the Faculty of Law, Humanities and Arts. Between 2008-2011, she was an ARC Post Doctoral Research Fellow at Macquarie University (2008) and The University of Wollongong (2009-11). Sarah completed her undergraduate degrees in philosophy and law at Macquarie University. She was awarded her PhD in philosophy from The University of New South Wales in 2006. Sarah has also taught at Macquarie University and UNSW. Sarah's research specialization is primarily at the intersection of political philosophy and philosophy of law. The focus of her current project is on the limits of free speech and deliberative democracy. Other recent publications are concerned with issues in rights theory, feminism and phenomenology.

CPD Points: 2

Time: 6-8pm

Location: Common Room, Level 4, New Law Building (F10), Eastern Avenue, Camperdown, University of Sydney

Cost: Free, however registration is required

Contact: Professional Learning & Community Engagement

Phone: 02 9351 0429

Email: 2f0c24412c261c04101c2c2a3f0300262b480f01224a0627