Appeal to New Zealanders to defend freedom of expression
While the government has claimed that changes to Human Rights Act 2003 have come as a result of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Christchurch attack, that is disingenuous and misleading.
The Labour government has had this set of reforms on their agenda for some time and even campaigned on this issue at the 2020 election. While none of us wants to be victims of speech which we consider hateful, it is impossible to apply an objective standard to determine what is hateful. When there are only subjective perspectives on what constitutes hateful or legitimate speech, hate speech simply becomes the speech by people we disagree with.
Four ends of six proposals
The six proposals put forward by the government accomplish four broad things: (a) Increase the number of groups specifically protected under hate speech law (b) Move the primary law related to “hate speech” from the Human Rights Act to the Crimes Act (c) Significantly increase the penalties for “hate speech,” by allowing for fines of up to $50,000 or up to 3 years in prison and (d) Lower the bar substantially from incitement to violence to “incitement to hatred.”
It is impossible to provide statutory protection for every group in society.
Neither (Justice) Minister (Kris) Faafoi nor Prime Minister (Jacinda) Ardern would clearly exclude political opinion from protection. If included as a protected group, people could be imprisoned for insulting others’ political beliefs, and so the essence of our democracy and free and frank debate would be undermined.
Further, the proposed changes seek to move the current law from the Human Rights Act into the Crimes Act. This may sound like a technicality, but it means that Police and courts will be charged with defining “hate speech” and deciding where the line is. It will see the courts recognise Parliament’s intention for this law to have a more active role in our country, despite the ambiguities related to how it should be applied.
Disproportionate Increase in penalties
The proposed sanction for “hate speech” is up to three years in jail, while common assault in New Zealand is currently punishable with a maximum of one year in prison. The increase in penalties associated with “hate speech” crime are totally disproportionate to the objective harm actually caused. They are in no way commensurate with our current legal system and are out-of-line in comparison to other crimes which incur similar penalties.
Yet not only will the penalties for hate speech be considerably higher, but these proposals also significantly lower the bar in terms of what would constitute “hate speech.”
Previously, the key criteria focused on the high standard of incitement to violence. the proposed criteria will lower this threshold to “incite hatred,” which could be defined as simply being threatening, abusive, or even just insulting.
If the Prime Minister truly intends to have a high threshold similar to the current legislation, then there should be wording to that effect. There is not.
Standing up for rights
The Ministry of Justice has called for New Zealanders to submit these proposals, and that is exactly what we must do. We encourage you to stand up for your right to stand up. Tell the government that we do not need them policing our speech and to abort these proposed changes. Sign the Free Speech Union’s petition at SaveFreeSpeech.co.nz to have your voice heard.
Jonathan Ayling is Campaign Manager of Free Speech Union, a registered trade union under the Employment Relations Act 2000 based in Wellington. Email: email@example.com