Tauranga MP voices hate speech law concerns

File Image. SunLive.

Tauranga MP Simon Bridges has spoken of his belief that freedom of speech is a fundamental right in light of the Government’s release for public consultation on its long-awaited plan for the laws governing hate speech.

Hate speech will become a criminal offence and anyone convicted could face harsher punishment, under proposed legislative changes.

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 says abusive or threatening speech that incites can divide communities.

"Building social cohesion, inclusion and valuing diversity can also be a powerful means of countering the actions of those who seek to spread or entrench discrimination and hatred."

Protecting free speech and protecting people from hate speech will require careful consideration and a wide range of input, Faafoi says.

Whilst Bridges says the National Party would need to see the law in writing before taking a conclusive position they oppose the criminalizing of speech except in cases of incitement to violence, something he says is already provided for in New Zealand law.

“We are not ruling out supporting sensible changes to the Human Rights Act 1993 like perhaps updating the groups covered by anti-discrimination law, but we would need to see the law in writing before taking a conclusive position,” says the National Party’s Justice spokesperson.

“In any case, Minister Faafoi’s proposed Hate Speech law changes seek to change a lot more.

“The Prime Minister has already begun mischaracterising the proposed law changes by framing them as simply adding ‘religion’ as a protected group in light of the Royal Commission. I encourage all New Zealanders to read the six proposals for themselves because these laws reach much further than that.

The government is considering creating a new, clearer hate speech offence in the Crimes Act, removing it from the Human Rights Act.

That would mean anyone who "intentionally stirs up, maintains or normalises hatred against a protected group" by being "threatening, abusive or insulting, including by inciting violence" would break the law.

The punishment for hate speech offences could also increase - from up to three months' imprisonment or a fine of up to $7000, to up to three years' imprisonment or a fine of up to $50,000.

The groups protected from hate speech could also grow - the government is considering changing the language and widening the incitement provisions in the Human Rights Act.

It has not yet decided which groups will be added. That is expected to happen following public consultation.

It is currently only an offence to use speech that will "excite hostility" or "bring into contempt" a person or group on the grounds of their colour, race or ethnicity. Gender identity, sexual orientation, religion or disability aren't protected grounds.

“The National Party encourages open debate and discussion as this leads to people being better informed and able to form their own opinions,” says Bridges.

“Democracy relies on the ability of people to speak freely and in turn others are, of course, free to disagree.

“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.”

The government is proposing several changes to the civil provision of the Human Rights Act, including making it illegal to incite others to discriminate against a protected group.

It also wants to amend the Human Rights Act to ensure trans, gender-diverse and intersex people are protected from discrimination.

The Ministry of Social Development will simultaneously consult with the public about what can be done to make New Zealand more socially cohesive.

Public submissions open today and close on August 6. The government's discussion document includes steps on how to submissions.

- Additional reporting/RNZ

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