1 Apr 2019

Law change should consider protecting religious groups against hate speech

9:00 pm on 1 April 2019

The Human Rights Commission wants the government to consider changing the law to protect religious groups against hate speech, something that's also supported by the country's Federation of Muslim Associations.

Muslim man at the national remembrance service in Christchurch.

The Federation of Muslim Associations supports the call to protect religious groups against hate speech. Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

Justice Minister Andrew Little has said he wants to speed up the process to review New Zealand's hate crime laws in the wake of the terrorist attack in Christchurch.

But the National Party - while supporting the review - says it will have to be careful not to remove freedom of speech principles, while the ACT Party totally rejects any such change.

As it stands, there's no law preventing hate speech being directed at someone on basis of their religion as they are walking down the street.

It is anomalies like this which has Mr Little moving to fast-track a law that could see a new legal offence for hate crimes.

Andrew Little

Andrew Little Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

The Human Rights Commission has long called for such a review, and its chief legal advisor Janet Anderson-Bidois said the Christchurch terrorist attack shows why.

"We have current laws around that 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 the religion and they don't cover sexual orientation or gender or disability."

Such hostility can be taken as aggravating factors when someone is sentenced in court, but they are not currently crimes in and of themselves.

Hate speech online is covered by the Harmful Digital Communications Act, but that's of no use to anyone who's abused face-to-face because of their religion, sexual orientation or disability.

In addition to revisiting the law, the commission is calling for the government to create a register to monitor complaints and convictions for hate crimes.

"That might not change the offence that someone's charged with. But it's actually really, really important for us to know that a crime was committed because that person was gay or because they were a particular colour or because of their gender identity or a disability," Ms Anderson-Bidois said.

While raising concerns about what a law change could mean for free speech, National Party leader Simon Bridges has given his conditional support for such a review.

David Seymour

David Seymour Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

ACT's David Seymour, on the other hand, has come out strongly opposed, arguing it would divide the country and pit groups against one other.

"The Sentencing Act already not only allows but requires judges to consider whether a crime was aggravated by hostility towards a person based on their race or colour or national origin," he said.

New Zealand Federation of Islamic Associations president Mustafa Farouk disagreed.

"Why can't we just open that and include faith groups; any sub-group not only Muslims. Whether it is the Jewish community, whether it is Hindu, whether it is Sikhs or Christian groups.

"If somebody makes certain statements that incite someone to harm these individuals, that person should be held responsible."

Dr Mustafa Farouk

Mustafa Farouk Photo: RNZ / Andrew McRae

Acting Prime Minister Winston Peters said it was a debate the country needed to have.

"That said, let's look at this with some balance. I've seen hate language from the left and the right, usually the extreme left and extreme right, in an environment where no one in the middle ... would tolerate it.

"So we need to be careful here, but certainly I think we need to look at it."

Mr Little said he hoped to produce a proposal in relation to hate crimes by the end of this year.

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