It seems as though Israel Folau cannot cop a break in the media – but with reason, am I right? After being kicked off his Rugby team due to an Instagram post warning homosexuals, atheists and adulterers among others that “hell awaits you”, he decided to fight Rugby Australia, claiming that his post was merely an expression of his Christian values.
Folau wants to fight his claims under the Fair Work Act because he believes that he was discriminated against on the grounds of religion. However, it is in Folau’s contract that players are expected to avoid making comments that might be “detrimental to the best interest, image and welfare of the game”. Some aspirational codes are not necessarily binding, however, and while this code is not necessarily aspirational, there is a lot of room for interpretation too.
The irony lies in Folau’s claim that in being kicked off the team he was discriminated against on the grounds of religion, when it was, in fact, he who discriminated against a number of minority groups in a single Instagram post. What has made this case highly controversial, however, is the debate over notions such as free speech and religious expression.
Furthermore, Israel Folau decided to set up a GoFundMe page to help cover his legal expenses to fight against Rugby Australia. Pretty amusing considering how much money the guy probably has – and he did manage to raise $750,000 of a $3 million target. The symbolism behind people donating money towards a ‘cause’ which is masked as a plea to help Folau fight for his ‘right’ to express his faith after what he did is just uncanny.
When I first heard of his page I found it amusing, given I associate GoFundMe pages with people needing help for their cancer treatment or other worthy causes such as mental health in Australia. But is Folau’s case worthy to set up a GoFundMe page? Well after a routine period of evaluation, the company’s regional manager in Australia concluded that the campaign violates their terms of service and, as you have gathered, it was shut down.
The company’s full statement said Israel Folau’s campaign did not comply with GoFundMe’s policy which advocates zero tolerance for discrimination or exclusion. The media is a powerful tool not only for good but for harmful rhetoric to circulate. If you go onto their website you see photos which are obviously there for the emotional appeal and statements such as “Over 10,000 people start a GoFundMe every day”. Bellow that figure on the webpage you can see subheadings which connote the reason behind people setting up a GoFundMe page; some of which include education and nonprofit, but faith is also there.
“As a company, we are absolutely committed to the fight for equality for LGBTIQ people and fostering an environment of inclusivity”, the statement said.
On Friday, Rugby Australia head Raelene Castle said the Folau’s crowdfunding strategy was inappropriate because it was overshadowing causes such as care costs for sick children. Folau, however, didn’t see it in this light and reached out to his loyal following on Instagram thanking them for the messages from people who believe discrimination in the workplace is wrong and has no place in Australia.
Quite ironic, once again. What’s interesting is that Australia has never seen a case like this before where the High Court must decide whether religious expression can compromise the protection of groups of people in society from discrimination as it is a right in constitutional law. Religious freedom is in our constitution however it is far from comprehensive. Freedom of speech is also not explicit but political communication is implied.
Soon after the shutdown of the GoFundMe campaign, the Australian Christian Lobby opened a fundraiser on its own platform. The ACL has also promised a $100 000 donation toward Folau’s legal proceedings against Rugby Australia.
Whatever happens in the trial, I will never condone hate speech – but I don’t agree with the full censorship of opinions and comments and think that the presentation of a diverse number of views can help society address and dismantle discrimination and break down attitudes which support and enable the cycle of inequality and marginalization.