There are laws that prohibit racial abuse in Australia. The laws only deal with public behaviour, not personal beliefs.
In Victoria, it is against the law to vilify a person or group of people in public because of their race or religion. Vilification is behaviour that ‘incites or encourages hatred, serious contempt, revulsion or severe ridicule’ for a person or group of people because of their race and/or religion.
It is also against the law to behave in public in a way that is racially offensive or abusive to a person or group of people because of their race, colour, nationality or ethnic origin.
Racial and religious vilification
Racial and religious vilification is unlawful under the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act 2001 (Vic).
Racial and religious vilification includes such things as:
- making racist comments in print, via email or online, including on Facebook, Twitter or other social media
- making public statements at a meeting or at a public rally that encourages hatred of people of a particular race or religion
- writing racist graffiti, or displaying racist posters or stickers.
Under the Act, vilification does not include:
- an act done in private (for example, a private discussion that you would not expect other people to overhear)
- an artistic work or performance
- a statement, publication, discussion or debate in the public interest
- a fair and accurate report in the media when it is done in good faith.
Acts of ‘racial hatred’
Under the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth), it is unlawful to do an act in public that is:
- based on the race, colour, national or ethnic origin of a person, and
- likely to offend, insult or humiliate that person or group of people.
This is a Commonwealth law that applies everywhere in Australia.
Behaviour that is against the law includes:
- abuse or harassment because of race
- racially biased reporting
- the use of offensive racial stereotypes or racial comments in the media
- writing racist graffiti in a public place
- making racist speeches at a public rally to an audience
- placing racist posters or stickers in a public place.
Racial abuse can be written or verbal.
When an act is in a public place
A public place is any place where the public are invited or have access, including:
- public transport
- sporting arenas.
It also includes public communication, such as newspapers, pamphlets or brochures, TV and radio programs, or the internet.
There are exceptions that allow some actions if they are done ‘reasonably and in good faith’. These exceptions are to protect freedom of speech and expression.
The exceptions cover:
- an artistic work or performance
- a publication, discussion or debate on a matter of public interest
- a fair and accurate report on a matter of public interest
- a fair comment on any event or matter of public interest if the comment is an expression of a person’s genuine belief.
Complaints about racial abuse
However, discrimination law is complex and it can be confusing knowing which option is the best one for you. If you complain to one place, sometimes you cannot later change your mind and complain elsewhere. It is best to call us to before lodging a complaint.
Disclaimer: The material in this print-out relates to the law as it applies in the state of Victoria. It is intended as a general guide only. Readers should not act on the basis of any material in this print-out without getting legal advice about their own particular situations. Victoria Legal Aid disclaims any liability howsoever caused to any person in respect of any action taken in reliance on the contents of the publication.
We help Victorians with their legal problems and represent those who need it most. Find legal answers, chat with us online, or call us. You can speak to us in English or ask for an interpreter. You can also find more legal information at www.legalaid.vic.gov.au
Reviewed 12 April 2022