Free Press, 1 April 2019 – The Free Speech Fight
The Christchurch terrorist attacks have set off a debate about hateful actions and speech that targets particular groups and whether we need new laws to protect New Zealanders.
Hate crimes are acts of violence or hostility directed at people because of who they are. In theory, these offences attract tougher sentences because they target particular groups. Consider two scenarios. In the first, a person defaces a grave. In the second, a person, driven by hostility towards Jewish people, defaces a Jewish grave with a swastika. Most reasonable people would find the second offence more distasteful and accept it should be punished more severely.
Our law is already equipped to deal with such offences. If a person commits a crime because of hostility towards a group with a particular characteristic – be it race, religion or sexual orientation – our Sentencing Act requires judges to treat that as an aggravating factor that can attract a harsher penalty. Fair enough.
The Danger Zone
Where we are in danger of crossing a line is in creating new crimes for having distasteful opinions. Justice Minister Andrew Little is right now considering whether New Zealand should do that. We are yet to see the proposals, but the Government could police our speech and tell us which of our words are unacceptable.
Authoritarianism in the UK
In the UK, it is an offence to use “threatening, abusive or insulting words that causes another person harassment, alarm or distress”. Earlier this year, a UK woman was arrested and thrown in jail for seven hours after she referred to a transgender woman as a man on Twitter. Kate Scottow had her photograph, DNA and fingerprints taken. Police took her phone and laptop and served her with a court order preventing from her referring to her accuser as a man. Some people have called this “hate speech”. We are not making this up.
Shutting Down Debate
The intolerant Left argues that “free speech doesn’t include hate speech”. What does that even mean? Yes, there are limits on speech that have evolved in the common law over time. These can be objectively tested in court. You can’t incite violence. You can’t make a nuisance of yourself by shouting fire when there is no fire. You can’t defame people. Hate speech, on the other hand, is just a subjective test that can be used to silence unpopular opinions.
Here are two important questions for those wishing to impose hate speech laws on New Zealanders: Who gets to decide what hate speech is? And how do we trust those people not to use hate speech laws to suppress ideas they don’t like?
A far-left bureaucrat you’ve never heard will have some say in deciding what “hate speech” is. Paul Hunt was appointed Chief Human Rights Commissioner in January. Just two months earlier he unsuccessfully stood for a position in the UK Labour Party as a Jeremy Corbyn-aligned socialist. Earlier today he said New Zealand hadn’t “achieved a balance” between free speech and hate speech, that we need a debate about speech and a review of the laws governing speech. Unless we are constantly vigilant about freedom of expression, these are the kinds of people who will define hate speech for us and suppress ideas they don’t like.
Why Free Speech Matters
Our survival depends on an open culture of ideas and speech. We cannot solve our most pressing problems if we are not able to try new ideas, discard those that don’t work, and look for better ones. We can only do that in an open society in which free thought and open enquiry are encouraged.
The free speech fight is just beginning and ACT will be at the forefront of it. If you’re willing to support us, you can do so here.