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Having our say

May 15, 2019 May 2019 No Comments

If last year’s cancellation of a speaking engagement by the former Opposition Leader, Do Brash, showed anything, it should have been that the culture of free speech needs support in New Zealand.  Instead, Justice Minister Andrew Little has called for a hastening of a revue of an existing statute that make it an offence to say or publish words that incite discrimination.

It is one thing to urgently review gun laws in the wake of the atrocity which claimed 50 lives by gunfire but it would be a quite different thing to allow one man’s criminal rampage to curtail in any way New Zealand’s freedom of speech. Owning firearms is not a cornerstone of democracy; free speech certainly is.

Andrew Little says that current legal provision of ‘hate speech’ is very narrow. If so then New Zealand is lucky to have so far escaped the zeal with which some countries have tried to proscribe the views that people are allowed to express.

The law should err on the side of supporting free speech because there is a principal that matters more than the discomfort that free speech expression may cause some people on some occasions.

Andrew Little told RNZ National in an interview “that people expected statutes to be very clear and unequivocal and I think that’s the point we want to get to”. 

It may be where some people want to get to. But many other people believe that political and public debates should be robust and that the public does not need protecting from ideas, opinions or, at times , even insults and prejudice. 

In UK which has done as Andrew Little advocates in legislating a particularised definition of hate speech, the cause has frequently been bought into ridicule. Police told an Essex baker his poster promoting his bread as ‘None of the French rubbish’ might incite racial hatred.

Court found a nineteen year old who posted Snap Dogg’s lyrics on her Instagram guilty of grossly offensive message by public communication, fining her 500 pounds and 85  pounds costs plus  and eight week curfew. 

An important question is: would stopping people expressing their views and anxieties stop anyone from having those views or anxieties? No, and quite possibly it would do the opposite. Suppression of free speech is more apt to intensify  banned views than soften them.  

The government needs to demonstrate there is a gap in the law because, so far, it is hard to see one. Andrew Little himself said “Our laws in effect protect people against the most egregiously offensive  forms of expression”. Good, that’s all they should do . 

Printed with permission of the NZ Listener.

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