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Freedom of speech and pluralism

(8 May) New Zealand has many and various constraints on what people can say in public. Should we have more written into law to deal with this thing called “hate speech”? Probably, for the greater good of our liberal democracy and pluralistic society.

Freedom of speech is obviously fundamental to democracy. For one thing, it’s enshrined in the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1993 where “everyone has … the freedom to seek, receive and impart information and opinions of any kind” (s4).

People must have rights to speak their minds and to access a diversity of views. But these are not absolute rights and they’ve always been subject to constraint. Defamation law, criminal sanctions on inciting violence and disorder, and censorship of publications “likely to harm society” – all long-standing limits on freedom of expression and speech.

Well before now also, we have outlawed some speech squarely in the “hate” category. (Define the latter as communication intended to threaten and intimidate people on the basis of group identity and involving derogatory or abusive language. It usually incites discrimination, perhaps violence, against a targeted group).

Prohibitions in New Zealand’s Human Rights Act 1993 include “threatening, abusive or insulting” communication that is likely to excite hostility towards people on grounds of their colour, race, ethnicity or national origin. And the Harmful Digital Communications Act 2015 goes further by listing 10 types of communication which should not occur online, including anything that “denigrate(s) a person by reason of his or her colour, race, ethnic origins, religion, gender, sexual orientation or disability” (s6). This Act makes it an offence to post digital material with the intention “that it cause harm to a victim”.

So why do we have these, and all other, limits on free speech rights?  To promote and protect “pluralism” in New Zealand – the fundamental belief that diversity is good for society and democracy, and that everyone benefits when individuals respect each other and respect differences between social groups.

The mosque murders of 15 March, and the hateful communication accompanying them, are a shock to New Zealand’s pluralism. They expose the possibility that a religious minority has been victimised insidiously over time through hate speech and perhaps other forms of discrimination – that the murders were, somehow, culmination of a deeper problem in this society. The risk is surely there as immigration adds to diversity, multiplies differences and creates more social complexity.  

In 2019, it is not New Zealand’s freedom of speech that needs protection but our aspirations for pluralism and truly liberal democracy. The Government’s forthcoming review of possible gaps in our already-established law against hate speech is therefore reasonable. (Note that after 15 March the Chief Censor could quickly use existing powers under the Films, Videos and Publications Classification Act 1993 to outlaw distribution and possession of the mosque murderer’s so-called “manifesto”).

Obviously any review needs to recognise that people offended by the speech of others are not automatically victimised (and in need of legal protection) – and that freedom of speech, itself, will always be part of the solution. We can use it to expose and negate the lies and banality from which hate speech is composed.

With respect for the recent speech of Paul Hunt, Andrew Little, Paul Spoonley and The Listener.


See earlier blogs under the Gallery tab above.


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