A popular right-wing commentator was found guilty Wednesday of breaking Australian discrimination law by implying that fair-skinned Aborigines chose to identify as indigenous for profit and career advancement.
Federal Court Justice Mordy Bromberg ruled in a 149-page judgement that fair-skinned Aborigines were likely to have been "offended, insulted, humiliated or intimidated by the imputations" included in columnist Andrew Bolt's two articles published by the Herald Sun newspaper in Melbourne in 2009.
Bromberg ruled out Bolt and his publisher's defense under a clause of the Racial Discrimination Act that exempts "fair comment" because the articles "contained errors of fact, distortions of the truth and inflammatory and provocative language."
Bromberg said he will prohibit reproduction of the offending articles and will consider ordering the newspaper to publish a correction if it doesn't print an apology.
Bolt, who writes opinion pieces for newspapers around Australia and hosts a nationally broadcast weekly public affairs television program, described the ruling as a defeat for freedom of speech.
"This is a terrible day for free speech in this country," he told reporters outside court. "It is particularly a restriction on the freedom of all Australians to discuss multiculturalism and how people identify themselves."
Publisher Herald and Weekly Times Pty. Ltd., a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., said it was considering lodging an appeal.
"We defended the action because we believe that all Australians ought to have the right to express their opinions freely, even where their opinions are controversial or unpopular," the publisher said in a statement.
'He set out to offend'
But Aboriginal activist Pat Eatock, who filed the court action, said Bolt's two articles "were not professional journalism."
"He set out to offend from the word 'go,'" she said.
The articles, headlined "It's so hip to be black" and "White fellas in the black," named 18 prominent Australians of mixed heritage whom Bolt wrote were part of a trend of choosing to be identified as Aboriginal.
Nine of them joined the court action, testifying that none "chose" to be Aboriginal. The plaintiffs, who included indigenous academics, business people, an author and an artist, said they had all identified as being indigenous since childhood.
Some were in the Melbourne court room on Wednesday and cheered when Bromberg made his ruling.
"I believe the result means that Australia will have a higher quality and more responsible media and that to some degree the persecution of Aboriginal people in the press will be lessened," author Anita Heiss, who was one of the Aboriginal witnesses in the case, said in a statement.
The Bolt articles touch on public concerns in Australia that people who do not appear obviously Aboriginal benefit from government programs designed to lift Australia's indigenous population out of poverty.
Aborigines make up 2.3 percent of Australia's 23 million people and are the nation's most impoverished ethnic group. They die more than a decade younger than other Australians and endure higher rates of disease, joblessness and imprisonment.
The Racial Discrimination Act became law in 1975 under Australia's multicultural policy to protect minorities against intolerance. It is not enforced by prison sentences or fines, but enables judges to make orders to correct breaches.
Bolt and his publisher must meet with the plaintiffs to discuss appropriate court orders that would reflect the judgment.