Changes To Hate Speech Laws Must Uphold The Bill Of Rights Act
Commentary from David Lynch, Director Momentus Public Relations Ltd
25 May 2021
MP and ACT leader David Seymour has just completed a nationwide Free Speech Tour speaking about free speech, to counteract the Government proposing hate speech laws.
The Government wants to improve and amend hate speech laws, and create new, hate-motivated offences in the wake of the March 15, 2019 terror attacks in Christchurch.
I was one of 400 people that attended David Seymour’s final address, which was held in Christchurch on the 13 May.
I have prepared the following commentary to encourage a wider public discussion in defence of upholding New Zealand’s tradition of free speech as a principle that supports the freedom of an individual or a community to articulate their opinions and ideas without fear of retaliation, censorship, or legal sanction.
Labour is promising tougher hate speech laws, which David Seymour says will undermine our fundamental right to freedom of expression.
He says, “Hate speech laws are divisive and dangerous, turning debate into a popularity contest where the majority can silence unpopular views.”
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has described the kind of language Labour would make unlawful: ‘when you see it, you know it’.
The law change would make it a crime to intentionally "stir up, maintain or normalise hatred" against racial or religious groups through the use of "threatening, abusive, or insulting" language.
Offenders would face up to three years in prison.
Seymour points out that this is the danger: ‘hate speech is deeply subjective’.
Threatening others or inciting violence should be illegal, but something as subjective as ‘offensive’ language should never be unlawful.
Seymour says that the Freedom of Expression is one of the most important values our society has.
It was with this in mind, that Seymour embarked on his nationwide Free Speech Tour, which was aimed at discussing how New Zealanders that shared his concerns could push back against Labour’s hate speech laws and defend freedom of expression.
Momentus PR Commentary
In my professional opinion, the survival of free speech depends on the courage of individuals who defend it. There are many examples of this throughout history.
Free speech is an aspect of individual self-determination and each of us must ultimately decide the limits we think appropriate to it. Moreover, part of the case for free speech is that the upholding of good shared principles itself requires people to challenge those principles, so that they are constantly tested and kept sharp. That applies also to the rules governing free speech in a particular place and time.
It is understandable that our Prime Minister might well feel disheartened that ACT has been campaigning against the hate speech reforms because the Government is yet to make any decisions. However, in my opinion, ACT leader David Seymour was totally justified with his immediate pushback, saying he was equally "disheartened" by the Prime Minister's suggestion his party is not willing to engage.
Seymour is correct, when he says: “Democracy and the ability to have civil and honest conversations is already becoming imperilled, which is why this is the worst possible time to empower lynch mobs who choose to take offence at ideas they don't support.”
There is absolutely no argument that we could all do better at being respectful in the way we deal with each other. However, redefining free speech as a criminal offence will have the opposite effect as it is inconsistent with how New Zealand must apply its own Rules of Law without diminishing the freedoms available to it citizens.
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
Freedom of speech is a principle that supports the freedom of an individual or a community to articulate their opinions and ideas without fear of retaliation, censorship, or legal sanction.
The term freedom of expression is usually used synonymously but, in legal sense, includes any activity of seeking, receiving, and imparting information or ideas, regardless of the medium used.
The right to freedom of expression is recognized as a human right under article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and recognized in international human rights law in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
The New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 (section 14) affirms that “everyone has the right to freedom of expression, including the freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and opinions of any kind in any form. The right has been interpreted as including the right not to be compelled to say certain things or to provide certain information.”
In a speech in Parliament on the 8 December 2020, the Prime Minister promised to work with all parties to try to close "the gaps in hate speech legislation".
In my opinion, it will therefore be critically important, in the lead up to her introducing any law change, for all New Zealanders, and in particular the media, to hold her to account by ensuring any changes are consistent with the Bill of Rights Act in upholding the Right to Freedom of Expression for all citizens.