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Robust public discussion on "hate speech" needed, says Justice Minister

01 May 2019

Protecting our crucially important right to freedom of speech, while testing whether the balance is right regarding "hate speech", needs a robust public discussion from all quarters, Justice Minister Andrew Little says.

In an opinion piece published on NZME's NZ Herald website, Mr Little says he has asked the Ministry of Justice to work with the Human Rights Commission to examine whether New Zealand's laws properly balance the issues of freedom of speech and hate speech.

He says the process should not be rushed, and he expects a report for public comment towards the end of the year.

In an answer to a written parliamentary question from National MP Chris Bishop, Mr Little has said officials will produce a discussion document for public release "by the end of this year". In response to another question from Mr Bishop he said he had received one document from officials regarding the review of existing hate speech legislation.

Mr Little has also stated that he considers New Zealand laws relating to hate speech to be inadequate.

In his NZ Herald article, Mr Little says the context for his requested "stocktake" is not just the horrific events in Christchurch, but also the history of free speech protection in New Zealand.

"The reality is we already have laws to protect against what we call "hate speech", which are the Human Rights Act and the Harmful Digital Communications Act. These criminalise incitement of racial disharmony through written or verbal expression, and refusal to remove social media posts which are bullying or include humiliating intimate information about someone."

However, he asks, is it right that we have sanctions against incitement of disharmony on racial grounds but not, for example, on grounds of religious faith.

Prime Minister also comments

While the government hasn't released any official statement on its review of "hate speech" laws, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has said the Government will not ban criticism of religious groups, but is reviewing whether New Zealand's laws go far enough in stopping violence against them.

Ms Ardern has told Newshub's AM Show that the work needs to be done carefully so as to not inappropriately limit freedom of expression.

"I think probably that people will agree that is a gap in our legislation and so that is something the Minister is working his way through, really carefully though," she said.

"This is an area where we need to be really cautious about balance freedom of speech, but also where that speech tips over into a space where it becomes potentially violent and harmful."

Call for Human Rights Commission investigation

In the latest development in the "hate speech" debate, a press release from the New Zealand Māori Council has called on the Human Rights Commission to investigate the Hobson's Pledge organisation.

It says this follows a Council resolution.to ask the Commission "to investigate the impact that groups such as Hobsons Pledge has by furthering the fires of hate speech and the putting down of Māori and peoples of colour".

A statement released in response by Hobson's Pledge says it welcomes an investigation by the Commission "so long as the Commission applies the law, acts independently, and leaves prejudice at the door".

The most recent public utterances by the Human Rights Commission on the issue were made by its chief legal advisor Janet Anderson-Bidois in a Radio NZ interview on 1 April.

"We have current [hate speech] laws ... in the Human Rights Act, but those laws only cover race, colour, ethnic or national origin. They don't cover hostility directed at people or groups because of [their] religion and they don't cover sexual orientation or gender or disability."

The Commission's latest newsletter, also references a speech given at Otago University on 2 April by Chief Commissioner Paul Hunt on the issues around hate speech.

Last updated on the 16th September 2019