Property rights trumped again

A recent court case in Queensland highlights a disturbing trend: the ‘right’ not to be discriminated against trumps all other rights. A motel in the mining town of Moranbah this week lost their case in the Queensland Civil and Administrative Tribunal against a sex worker who they had banned from renting a room. The tribunal found that their ban contravened Queensland’s Anti-Discrimination Act.

The case was extensively previewed in an article in the Weekend Australian Magazine in June ($):

One of the towns that Karlaa most likes to visit is Moranbah. By her own reckoning she’s stayed at every one of its six motels but preferred the Drover’s Rest, where she stayed 17 times in two years until June 29, 2010 – when the rug was abruptly pulled from under her business.

According to Karlaa, that day started like any other: she saw a few early morning clients and then “cleaned the room thoroughly. I don’t want to give anyone an excuse to throw me out.” Shortly before 10am she went to settle her account but, according to documents lodged with the Queensland Civil and Administrative Tribunal, she got a frosty reception. “The owner, Joan Hartley, she told me next time I came to Moranbah I’d have to stay somewhere else,” Karlaa says. “When I asked her, ‘Why’s that?’ she said, ‘We think you’re a sex worker’ and the way she said it, she was judging me. She gave me the impression that what I do, it’s disgusting, it’s filth; it was ‘we don’t want that in our backyard’.”

Karlaa says she told Hartley she was being “discriminated against on the basis of lawful sexual activity”, to which Hartley responded, “So sue me”. So Karlaa did. She lodged a complaint with the tribunal, saying she was “asked unnecessary questions about being a sex worker and that she was overcharged because of her status as a sex worker”. But her complaint was dismissed last October on what might be called a technicality: the Drover’s Rest motel is licensed to serve alcohol and under the terms of Queensland’s Liquor Act the owners aren’t allowed to let people run businesses from the rooms. Karlaa has appealed on the grounds that many people use the telephone or the internet for business while staying in a motel room, and that using the bed can’t be that different. The appeal is due to be held next month.

But shouldn’t the owners of a business be free to choose who they offer their services too? Particularly if they are worried, as the owners appear to be in this case, that someone is engaging in an activity on their premises that could damage their business?

The concept of property rights dictates that no one should be forced to allow activity on their property that they do not want to have take place. The concept of freedom of contract dictates that  business owners should be able insist that reasonable conditions are met in exchange for their services – like that their rooms aren’t used to run other businesses. And freedom of association means that you should never have to associate with someone you don’t want to. For example, women should be free to exercise in a women-only gym (like Fernwood), and for that to be possible, the owners of the gym should be free to ban men from the premises.

But these rights seem to be easily swept away as soon as an accusation of discrimination is made – just as we have seen with freedom of speech and the Andrew Bolt case.

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