Crossbench senator David Leyonhjelm has labelled a high-profile racial discrimination case against a group of Queensland university students “an attempt at legal blackmail”.
The Liberal Democrats senator said the lawsuit – sparked by a Facebook comment posted when students were kicked out of an indigenous-only computer lab – was being used to constrain free speech.
Senator Leyonhjelm said it also demonstrated why the Racial Discrimination Act’s controversial section 18C needed to be repealed.
Cindy Prior, an indigenous woman and administration officer at QUT, is suing the university and three students under 18C for almost $250,000 in lost wages and general damages, plus future economic losses.
Two other students have already accepted an offer from Ms Prior’s lawyers to settle for $5000, reportedly because they couldn’t afford the legal costs and did not want to be linked with racism.
The remaining students – Alex Wood, Jackson Powell and Calum Thwaites – could face up to $500,000 in legal bills if the case goes to trial.
Senator Leyonhjelm, a free speech advocate, described the case, and particularly the offer to settle for $5000, as “a blatant attempt at legal blackmail”.
“It’s another case of people using the legal system for what amounts to political purposes,” he told AAP.
“Had I been one of the respondents I would have replied with a very short, two-word reply beginning with `get’.”
Tony Abbott had promised to repeal 18C as opposition leader, which became known as the Andrew Bolt law, after a high-profile case involving the conservative columnist, but backed down as prime minister following public criticism .
The QUT case dates back to May 2013 when Ms Prior asked Mr Wood and two other students to leave the university’s Oodgeroo Unit, which is reserved for indigenous students.
Mr Wood later posted on Facebook: “Just got kicked out of the indigenous only computer lab. QUT stopping segregation with segregation?”.
The post attracted a number of comments, some of which were critical of the lab’s existence.
Ms Prior is not mentioned in any of the posts but went on sick leave following the incident, later saying she felt unsafe leaving her home because she feared verbal abuse and was unable to return to work due to face-to-face contact with white people.
QUT and the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) have come under fire over their handling of the case after it was revealed the students weren’t told of Ms Prior’s complaint for more than a year.
The students only learned of the complaint days before a key AHRC meeting that paved the way for the federal lawsuit.