25 Jun 2021

Hate speech laws: ACT, National say proposals a divisive overreach

6:43 pm on 25 June 2021

Opposition parties are condemning the government's plans to make hate speech a criminal offence and to introduce harsher penalties.

No caption

David Seymour, left, and Simon Bridges are opposed to the government's plans for the laws governing hate speech. Photo: RNZ

The government this morning released for public consultation its long-awaited plan for the laws governing hate speech.

A new, clearer hate speech offence in the Crimes Act may be created with penalties that could range from three months' to three years' jail and fines up to $50,000.

The plan is part of the government's work to strengthen social cohesion in response to the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Christchurch terror attack.

Justice Minister Kris Faafoi said abusive or threatening speech that incites could divide communities.

Opposition parties were quick to call foul on the proposed changes.

ACT's David Seymour said the only people to win from today's announcement were the Twitter mob and the perpetually offended.

"The government's proposed hate speech laws are a huge win for cancel culture and will create an even more divided society," he said.

National's Simon Bridges said the party completely opposed the criminalising of speech except in cases of incitement to violence which was already provided for in New Zealand law.

He labelled the changes "Orwellian".

"Protecting free speech does not mean that there isn't speech that I find abhorrent. We are all offended by a variety of things. However, it would be complete overreach to criminalise people, throw them in jail for up to three years, because they caused offence.

"This government, unable to deliver on much else, appears to want to regulate New Zealanders in every facet of our lives. Not content with just telling us what car we are allowed to drive, they want to restrict and regulate the words that come out of our mouths," he said.

However, Massey University's Professor Paul Spoonley pushed back on the argument it would undermine free speech.

"We have all sorts of restrictions on what we can say that range from the Broadcasting Standards Authority all the way through to - ironically -Parliament in the chambers.

"We have restrictions on speech at the moment, this is making clear a particular issue around hate speech," he said.

Once the public have their say any legislation will then have to go through the select committee.

Moving too fast?

Public submissions on the changes will close on 6 August which came as a surprise to Canterbury University Dean of Law Ursula Cheer.

No caption

Ursula Cheer Photo: RNZ

"I would have thought for a very complex consultation and proposed changes to a law like this, it would be a bit longer - I would have thought to the end of August at least," she said.

Cheer said the language of normalising or maintaining hatred could be a contestable area.

"A lot of minority groups regard daily, mundane, ordinary racism like getting shouted at on the street or being asked where you come from and told to go back where you come from, I think they would regard that as normalising or maintaining hatred.

"But I think a lot of people would be quite concerned if those sorts of statements would be caught by this proposed provision and would then criminalise people," she said.

Senior law lecturer at Victoria University Eddie Clark doubted the changes would result in more prosecutions.

"Predicting how legal officials are going to act in the future is a mug's game, but I seriously doubt we will see dozens of prosecutions for this sort of behaviour particularly, which I suspect after consultation the breadth of the proposal is pared down a little bit," he said.

All three academics were supportive of strengthening hate speech laws but stressed education would be the most effective tool to address racism and build social cohesion.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs