Hate speech laws are a fool's errand that make things worse
Time has been called on overhauling ‘hate speech laws’ in New Zealand. After sitting in Labour’s manifesto for years, and two Ministers of Justice failing to build support for the proposals, maybe they’ve seen the light: legislation is no antidote to hate.
Minister Kiri Allan confirmed Saturday morning on Newshub Nation that the only proposal which will be enacted from last year’s proposal consultation is the inclusion of religion as a protected class. This is a major backdown from the intention to expand penalties significantly for hate speech (from 3 months in prison to 3 years and/or a fine from $7,000 to $50,000), to include a host of new protected groups, and to amend ‘incitement to discrimination.
For free speech loving Kiwis, this is a major win. But do even these limited changes make sense?
Both ACT and National (it’s about time Luxon said where he stood) have committed to opposing this legislation. The basic issue still remains: silencing opinion, even condemnable opinions (which do not amount to incitement to violence, which is already illegal), doesn’t deal with a lack of social cohesion.
And if hate speech laws don’t work for other ‘vulnerable communities', we need to rethink the entire venture. The question, ‘if this group, why not that group’ is legitimate. If hate speech laws do work to protect vulnerable communities, like religious groups, then why won't the Minister commit to including other vulnerable groups too? It’s because she herself has admitted they could make the situation worse. Why is this glaring truth not then relevant to religious groups?
The fact of the matter is hate speech laws (even if they’re just extending protected classes by one group) make things worse.
The Government must stand for Kiwis' right to express their opinions in speech and do away with the notion that gagging voices resolves complex issues. Sections 61 and 131 of the Human Rights Act should be repealed entirely and simple incitement to violence outlawed as speech beyond the pale of free expression. Until then, we’re making social cohesion worse by hand-picking which groups we’re allowed to be derogatory about, and which we can’t. This is hardly a winning strategy for unity.
In 2019, then Justice Minister Andrew Little announced that ‘Blasphemy Libel laws’ would be removed from the statute books. Are hate speech laws that will stop Kiwis from claiming that Glorivale is predatory and harmful to children, or that Christians are homophobic and intolerant, or that Muslims are commanded to be violent by their God, really that different from what we just removed from our law as antiquated?
It goes without saying that we don’t want religious groups lumped into monolithic groups without any nuance or insight. But is this change really going to stop that?
Two Justice Ministers have now failed in pushing their ideological agenda of expanded ‘hate speech’ laws through and have now passed this poisoned chalice to the Law Commission for a ‘deep dive.’ The Ministry of Justice has just spent over two years working on this very issue. What will the Law Commission discover that the Minister of Justice hasn’t? What if the Law Commission recommends extending penalties or including more groups? Will the Government walk around the mountain again?
It’s time better solutions were given a chance, solutions that elevate dialogue, reason, and counter-speech. Hate speech is a problem, but the problem is the hate, not the speech. As the American journalist Jonathan Rauch claims, ‘trying to fix the hate by silencing the speech is like trying to fix climate change by breaking all the thermometers.’
Today’s announcement is a good start, but we need to look at whether hate speech laws have any place in our law. Ultimately, they’re a fool's errand that actually make the situation worse.
Jonathan Ayling is the Chief Executive of the Free Speech Union.