Second attempt: court case after failing at HRC
Sokhom Prins is an Australian citizen who traces her ethnicity to Cambodia.
If you have the misfortune of being branded a wicked, whitesupremacist racist in one of her social media rants or group emails, be mindful about how you tell her where to go. You may (like me and my colleagues Janet Albrechtsen and Chris Merritt, along with The Australian’s chief executive, Nicholas Gray, and parent companies News Corp and Nationwide News) be accused of racial hatred under section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act in a formal complaint to the Australian Human Rights Commission.
When the hollowness of such a complaint is identified there and terminated, you may (as we now are) then be sued in a Federal Circuit Court damages claim seeking $1.6 million.
The first court appearance is scheduled for next month.
There is a temptation with a case such as this to ignore it as not worth reporting, particularly as publicity encourages the likes of Prins. On the other hand, there is public interest in highlighting absurdities that may become costly bureaucratic and legal problems, such as we saw with Cindy Prior, the Queensland University of Technology and hapless students.
The 18C legal action filed by Prins with the Federal Circuit Court’s Brisbane registry runs to a few hundred pages. The document was served on me late last week, following the commission’s termination in July of the original complaint Prins levelled this year.
On March 9 The Australian’s legal affairs editor, Chris Merritt, replied to an email from Prins, with the correspondence cc-ed to me, Albrechtsen and a few others.
Merritt said: “Dear Sokhom Prins, I do not usually respond to abusive emails, but in your case I will make an exception. I am offended and insulted on the basis of my race and ethnic background to be referred to as part of a ‘white racist posse’. I feel sure that my Tamil antecedents from southern India would share that opinion.”
In his response, Merritt, who has made well-reasoned arguments to parliamentary committees and in The Australian about the need to abolish section 18C because of its misuse and threats to free speech, wrote that Prins had caused him to “feel offended and insulted on the basis of my race and ethnic background” but he had “no intention of complaining to (former HRC head) Gillian Triggs about your race-based abuse”.
He urged Prins to “toughen up”.
Prins did not heed Merritt’s sound advice. The next morning The Australian’s cartoonist Bill Leak, who had been abused and denounced by Prins in her posts, died. He had been under significant stress after being the subject of a social media campaign and a complaint to the HRC for one of his most brilliant and honest cartoons, and falsely smeared as a racist.
Prins emailed Merritt, me and others. She said Merritt’s response to her, which was published in The Australian, was “racist, intimidating, and an attempt to remove my freedom of speech”. She questioned his Tamil ancestry, opined that he had “strayed very far from the tribe”, and suggested a “line-up” for a pub test on his whiteness. She pledged that in hundreds of social media posts she would continue to refer to me and my colleagues as “the baying pack of white racist abolitionists at The Australian”.
It is usually a waste of time and energy to engage with people such as Prins. But on the day we discovered that Leak had died, it seemed appropriate. My reply to her said simply: “Chris Merritt wrote a powerful and very direct rebuttal today to your ugly, defamatory rants, which included our friend and colleague Bill Leak. I respect your right to continue to make a fool of yourself. As you will respect my right to have freedom from loons and nutters. But can you please remove my email address from your spam and leave me to (what you regard as) my appalling racism? It’s a simple request. Please stop sending me your hateful, racist garbage. Alternatively, f..k off.”
Albrechtsen, who was in the email chain, replied in a note of support. She added: “Sokhom, you have identified the wrong enemy. Best take off now.”
In her subsequent 18C complaint, Prins says that I referred to her as a “fool, loon and nutter” because she was Asian, and that my request to her to go forth and multiply really meant that she should go back to Asia. Albrechtsen was guilty of racial hatred under 18C, according to Prins, because, when she wrote “best take off now”, she was telling her to “go back to your country”.
The commission’s Jodie Ball rejected the claims that our responses to Prins were racist or had anything to do with her ethnic origin.
Ball found in a nine-page decision: “Overall, I consider that this response from Mr Thomas was due to the content and nature of your previous emails to him, rather than having any connection to your Asian race or ethnic origin or that of Asian people more broadly. I note that the Pocket Oxford Dictionary defines the meaning of ‘take off’ as ‘remove or lead away; withdraw; or depart, especially hastily’. Given its ordinary meaning … it is unclear how Ms Albrechtsen’s statement in question can be interpreted as ‘go back to your country’, as claimed by you.”
But Prins wants her day in court.