Gympie man loses vilification appeal to High Court
QUEENSLAND: A former Cooloola councillor and the founder of Gympie gun shop Owen Guns has failed in an appeal to the High Court on constitutional grounds after a tribunal fined him for inciting hatred against homosexuals.
In 2008, Queensland's Anti-Discrimination Tribunal found gun enthusiast Ron Owen had overstepped the bounds under the state's vilification laws when he appeared in a car with the bumper sticker: ‘Gay Rights? Under God's law the only rights gays have is the right to die.’
Owen was ordered to pay $12,500 and costs to a lesbian group.
After the Queensland Court of Appeal determined last year that vilification laws did not infringe upon his implied constitutional right of political free speech, Owen took his case to the High Court, which dismised that appeal this week.
A former member of the British Grenadier Guards, Owen, who came to Australia in 1967, describes himself politically as an “individualist”.
Speaking of the 2008 case against him, he told Queensland Pride “it’s all rubbish”.
“A letter I wrote 15 years ago someone put on a website, I didn’t put it there,” Owen said. “The truck, the vehicle that had the sticker on – it wasn’t mine. But it all got lost in the newspaper rubbish that came out.”
Owen said the tribunal had made its decision in the absence of evidence. “There are no rules of evidence, and they’re not bound by the rules of evidence. It’s a kangaroo court.
“The freedom of political speech protects you guys and anybody else. If you don’t allow them to do that we all eventually suffer.”
When asked if a bumper sticker that suggested gays had a right only to die might persuade someone to take violent action, Owen said he did not believe people would “suffer from that confusion”.
Owen denied that he was defending the right of a person to put anti-gay bumper stickers on their cars.
“All I’m doing is saying we have a right of political free speech. I don’t know what the limit is, that’s up to the court to decide. But people can’t talk about problems if they can’t talk. You’ve got to agree about that.”
Ricki Menzies, one of the women who brought Owen to the tribunal, says Owen believes the issue is one of political free speech because he was an elected council official at the time.
“The thing is, Mr Owen is entitled to his opinion,” she says. “He’s not entitled to vilify people and for me it doesn’t really matter what his position is. If you’re supposed to be representing your local community, can you really make those comments about your constituents?
“I would think there should be more constrictions around the negative comments you can make about people who are possibly your constituents: what if the bumper sticker had said all black people should be dead?”
Last year, President Justice McMurdo from the Queensland Court of Appeal in rejecting Owen’s claim that vilification laws infringed upon an implied constitutional freedom of political communication, stated: “... I cannot see that the incitement of hatred towards, serious contempt for or severe ridicule of others on the grounds of race, religion, sexuality or gender can amount to political and government communication of the kind contemplated by the implied freedom under a diverse modern democracy.”
It was this decision that forced Owen to take his appeal, unsuccessfully, to the High Court.
The case will now return to the Queensland Civil and Administrative Tribunal.
[IMAGE]: Ron Owen inside his Gympie gun shop (Renee Pilcher)