Commission reveals details of 18c complaints

Tuesday 21 February 2017

The Australian Human Rights Commission has released the details of both the QUT and Bill Leak complaints  under the Racial Discrimination Act.

Below is an excerpt from the statement provided by Commission President, Professor Gillian Triggs to the Parliamentary Joint Committee Inquiry into freedom of speech in Australia on Friday 17 February 2017. (Source: Hansard uncorrected proof).

The (QUT) story began on 28 May 2013 at the Oodgeroo Unit—a computer lab set up by the Queensland University of Technology to support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students at the university. Ms Prior, the administration officer at the unit, asked three non-Indigenous men who had entered the lab if they were Indigenous. They said they were not. Ms Prior then advised the students that there were other facilities on the campus where they might access a computer and asked them to leave. Shortly after, a number of comments were posted on a public Facebook page called 'QUT Stalker Space'. I will repeat some of these comments, only to give the inquiry a truer sense of the substance of the complaint as it was first made by Ms Prior to the commission.

These are the kinds of comments that were made: 'I just got kicked out of the unsigned Indigenous computer room. QUT's stopping segregation with segregation.' Another: 'That is more retarded than a women's collective.' A third: 'ITT niggers.' A fourth: 'I wonder where the white supremacist computer lab is.' A fifth: 'Today is your lucky day. Join the white supremacist group and we'll take care of your every need.' And: 'By'—the person named's—'logic, it's also fine to start a KKK club.' And, finally: 'How did the Aboriginal gentleman gain entry to the university? Through the window.'

Ms Prior first complained directly to QUT about these comments. QUT contacted the students who were apparently responsible for them and asked the students to take the posts down. Ultimately, all the comments were removed. Ms Prior then emailed QUT and said that the incident had caused distress, and she had safety concerns about returning to work.

In December 2013, she made a formal complaint to QUT under its grievance resolution procedures. The students were not party to that process, suggesting to the commission that Ms Prior was primarily concerned at that time about the university's treatment of her, rather than about the comments allegedly made by the students. This complaint was not resolved through the university's internal processes.

On 27 May 2014, one year less a day after the incident at the computer lab, Ms Prior made a written complaint to the Australian Human Rights Commission. She alleged she had been discriminated against because of her race under section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act and that the university had failed properly to deal with her complaint. Ms Prior's complaint to the commission was made against QUT, to QUT staff members and seven students. Contact details were provided for five of those students but not for the other two.

Within two days of receiving the complaint, the commission contacted Ms Prior's lawyers. The commission, both by phone and email, suggested that she might appropriately confine her complaint to the university but not proceed against the students. Ms Prior's lawyers then advised the commission that they were currently negotiating with QUT to resolve the complaint. Ms Prior, with the university's agreement, asked the commission not to take any action to serve the complaint on the students or to list the matter for conciliation until these discussions had been finalised.

The commission agreed to this request as it appeared that the negotiations had a good prospect of successfully resolving the complaint. And I might add that the commission will typically take direction from the parties because this is a voluntary process, and if they feel that there is a possibility of resolution, we would normally give them a certain measure of discretion to seek a solution.