Justice Minister says hate speech laws ‘very narrow’ with gaps

Minister of Justice Andrew Little has said that New Zealand hate speech laws are too narrow and there were gaps in the law, but also said that any changes needed to be robustly debated.

RNZ:  Current hate speech law ‘very narrow’ – Justice Minister Andrew Little

Justice Minister Andrew Little says gaps exist in current laws around hate speech and what should be considered an offence.

Mr Little announced on Saturday that he was fast-tracking the review, which could see hate crimes made a new legal offence.

Mr Little told Morning Report today the current law specific to hate speech offences was “very narrow”.

“It applies to inciting racial disharmony, it doesn’t relate to expressions that incite discrimination on religious grounds or identity or a range of other grounds.”

“If you look at the Harmful Digital Communications Act, which is the other law we have dealing with what we might describe as hate speech, it’s very thorough but the question is whether the processes that are available under that legislation are as accessible and as good as they might be, so there’s grounds to review both those areas,” he said.

On who is covered under current law, Mr Little said: “If your hateful expressions and hateful actions are directed at somebody’s religion, or other prohibited grounds of discrimination other than race then actually it doesn’t cover that, there’s no offence at that point.”

He said you could potentially lay a complaint for mediation with the Human Rights Commission, but that the most gross type of expression seen around the Christchurch terror attacks wouldn’t be covered by it and that looked like there was a gap in the law.

He said the review would make clear whether the law does fit. He’s not convinced it does, but said he’ll leave it up to the experts doing the review.

Mr Little said the issue about where the line was drawn was the most difficult part of any law that constrains expression and speech.

“The reality is we know that there are forms of expression on social media and elsewhere that you can see at face value are totally unacceptable and not worthy of defence but then there are opinions and views that we might disagree with or might even find offensive but are legitimate contributions to debate.”

Mr Little said any change to the law would need to be robustly debated.

I’m sure any suggested changes will be robustly debated.

Gordon Campbell (Werewolf) on the legal crackdown on hate crimes

Obviously, deterring hate speech and outlawing hate crime has the aim of providing better protections to vulnerable persons and communities, but without unduly restricting the public’s rights to free expression. It isn’t an easy balance to strike.

Hate crimes have a broader effect than most other kinds of violent crime. A hate crime victimizes not only the immediate target but also impacts every member of the group that the direct victim represents. Hate crimes affect families, communities, and sometimes the entire nation.

With hate speech, it is maybe worth keeping in mind that this is not purely a hate crime vs free speech issue. Speech has never been entirely free, under the law. Some language (obscenity) some speech in some contexts (eg yelling “fire” in a crowded theatre) and some types of threat have always been illegal.

Theoretically, the online expression of hate speech should fall under the Harmful Digital Communications Act, but given (a) the superheated and extravagant nature of much “normal” online debate and (b) the extent to which hate content online originates from offshore, the New Zealand law doesn’t currently offer much in the way of a defensive shield.

Moreover, regulating speech online to the point where hate speech and/or the perception of it was entirely eliminated would require a surveillance apparatus and enforcement powers like those more commonly found in totalitarian states than in social democracies. Online, the cure may be almost as mad as the disease.

It could easily be worse if allowed to go too far in restricting speech.

To me hate is a very strong term, but many people say they ‘hate’ many trivial things.

With hate crime, and hate speech then, there may well be some scope for adjusting the boundaries of what counts as “intimidation” – where co-ercion is involved or implied – and “menacing”, where the intention is to engender fear and subservience in the victim. Unfortunately though, when Parliament has tried to deal with this sort of thing in the recent past, ordinary civil liberties have gone out the window in favour of rank political posturing.

Political posturing is a problem in any serious debate.

As Andrew Little has said, we have until December to find viable ways to criminalise expressions that (currently) do not meet the traditional tests of criminality – but which nevertheless have left vulnerable communities or persons feeling less safe. (Arguably, the repeated expression of hostile sentiments can serve to make an actual attack more likely.)

Any pre-emptive law however, which tries to restrict expression in areas where strong social disagreement exists will still need to be even-handed.

Putting that in context of recent discussions, that means restrictions on derogatory expressions related to religion would have to be ‘even handed’ – so should apply equally to ‘hate speech’ against Muslims and Islam, Christians and Christianity, and also agnostics and atheists.

This requirement may not suit groups that feel they have historical grievances, or socio-economic inequality etc on their side.

As the late US justice Antonin Scalia once famously wrote, the state has no authority to license one side of a debate to fight freestyle, while requiring the other to follow Marquis of Queensbury Rules. That’s one of the ironies.

The pressure for change may have to do with expressions of hostile content, but the solutions – if they are to be enforceable – will probably need to be formulated in ways that are content neutral. There will be few easy political points to be scored from such formulations.

The free speech versus hate speech debate is more than political – it is about the fundamentals of democracy as well as the fundamentals of a (relatively) free and open society.

Failures and success of ‘hate speech’ law in the UK

With a review of hate speech laws under ‘urgent review’ in New Zealand (not that urgent, expected to report back to Parliament late this year or early next year after consultation) there has been interested in how similar laws have worked in the United Kingdom.

Of course examples of seemingly ridiculous applications of the UK laws have been publicised.

David Farrar (Kiwiblog) Government looking to introduce hate speech laws

The UK is a great example of how well intentioned laws end up criminalising many different types of speech. Some examples:

  • An evangelist, was convicted because he had displayed to people in Bournemoutha large sign bearing the words “Jesus Gives Peace, Jesus is Alive, Stop Immorality, Stop Homosexuality, Stop Lesbianism, Jesus is Lord”.
  • A man was arrested in Cardiff for distributing pamphlets which called sexual activity between members of the same sex a sin
  • Harry Taylor sentenced to six months prison (suspended) because he left anti-religious cartoons in the prayer-room of Liverpool’s John Lennon Airport on three occasions and the Chaplain complained
  • A 19-year-old woman was convicted of sending a “grossly offensive” message after she posted rap lyrics that included the N-word on her Instagram page
  • An Irish TV writer was visited by the Police because he used the pronoun “he” on Twitter to refer to a transgender woman.

Lowering the bar from exciting hostility will lead to court cases like the ones cited above. If the Government proceeds, it will be buying a huge battle.

There is already a battle brewing – for good reason. I have serious doubt that a clear and fair law can be written to protect people against potentially damaging speech, and also protect people against frivolous legal jeopardy.

But there is one example of how the law seems to have worked reasonably well in the UK.

BBC News – Jayda Fransen: Ex-Britain First deputy leader convicted over hate speech

A former deputy leader of far-right group Britain First has been convicted of stirring up hatred during a speech about Islam in Belfast.

Jayda Fransen, 33, was found guilty over a speech at a rally in August 2017.

Britain First leader Paul Golding, 37, and two other Englishmen, John Banks and Paul Rimmer, were acquitted on similar charges.

All four defendants were on trial over speeches given during the ‘Northern Ireland Against Terrorism’ event two years ago.

They were accused of using threatening, abusive or insulting words intended to stir up hatred or arouse fear.

The court heard that Fransen told those gathered at the rally that there was no moderate version of Islam and that: “These people are baying for our blood.”

She added: “Islam says every single one of you wonderful people here today deserves to be killed.”

Those attending the rally were then told it was time for the world to come together against “the one common enemy”.

The judge told the court: “I’m satisfied these words were intended to stir up hatred and arouse fear.”

That sounds like a fair call from the judge to me.

He also found her guilty over a separate, filmed incident at a Belfast peace wall in December 2017.

On that occasion, the court heard that Fransen declared the “Islamification” of Britain will lead to similar walls to separate the two sides.

She claimed the country was “descending into civil war” and said it was time to “rise up against the biggest threat against the entire world”.

Confirming a conviction for that episode, the judge said: “I’m satisfied the words were menacing in nature.”

It sounds like Fransen is pretty much trying to incite civil war. I think legal consequences for that are a reasonable response.

(I have heard similar speech to this on New Zealand blogs).

Golding, of Beeches Close in Anerley, London, allegedly referred to a mosque in Newtownards as part of claims about Islam’s colonisation.

In his speech, he said: “We have got a problem with one religion and one religion only, that is Islam.”

Rimmer, of Modred Street in Liverpool, allegedly told the crowd Muslims were colonising and taking over British cities.

The 56-year-old was said to have warned about “a wolf coming down the track”.

He claimed, however, that he spoke about love and friendship.

The judge dismissed the case against Golding, Rimmer and Banks, 61, of Acacia Road, in Doncaster, England.

He said some of their speeches were “ugly” but had not crossed the line into being illegal.

And this seems like a reasonable differentiation – ugly speech that falls short of justifying a conviction.

New laws, like the ‘hate speech’ laws, need differentiations like these decisions to be made to establish a reasonable idea of what is legal and what is illegal.

There is always a risk of some prosecutors and some judges going too far, but the UK legal system, which ours is modelled on, has to work with what legislators (politicians) give them.

Hopefully our politicians can learn from the missteps and oversteps in the UK and avoid them here.

Minister of Justice fast tracking ‘hate speech’ legislation review

Minister of Justice Andrew Little says he is fast-tracking a review of legislation to look at ‘hate crime’ and ‘hate speech’. This could possibly lead to more specific laws to cover them.

However ‘fast-tracking’ does not necessarily mean a sudden knee-jerk lurch to draconian laws as some are saying is already happening. Little hopes to have aa proposal by the end of the year, and that would then have to go through Cabinet for approval and then through Parliament, so any changes look like being at least a year away – in election year,

1 News: Andrew Little plans fast-track review of hate speech laws

Justice Minister Andew Little says he’s fast-tracking a law review which could see hate crimes made a new legal offence.

He said the current law on hate speech was not thorough and strong enough and needed to change.

Mr Little said the Christchurch shootings highlighted the need for a better mechanism to deal with incidents of hate speech and other hateful deeds.

It isn’t unusual for an unprecedented crime to prompt a rethink of things that could be contributory factors (it happened after the Aramoana massacre). Firearm regulation and law changes are actually being fast-tracked, not just a review of them – and order in Council has already reclassified many types of semi-automatic weapons, and it is expected the legislation will go before Parliament next week.

He has asked justice officials to look at the laws and he was also fast-tracking a scheduled Human Rights Act review. “The conclusion I’ve drawn as the minister is that the laws are inadequate and I think we need to do better,” Mr Little said.

Mr Little said the current laws dealing with hate speech and complaints about hate speech and discriminatory action that relate to hateful expression were lacking.

The law in the Human Rights Act related to racial disharmony, but it didn’t deal with various other grounds of discrimination, he said.

The Harmful Digital Communications Act was put in place to deal with online bullying and other unpleasantness, but it didn’t tackle the “evil and hateful things that we’re seeing online”, Mr Little said.

He said the government and the Human Rights Commission will work together, and a document or proposal will be produced for the public to debate.

Note “a document or proposal will be produced for the public to debate”. It will be important to have a decent public debate about whatever is proposed.

“There will be important issues to debate. There will be issues about what limit should be put on freedom of expression and freedom of speech.

“We should reflect on where the lines need to be drawn and therefore, whether the laws should be struck so that they’re effective and provide some protection to people who’re otherwise vulnerable.”

I think it is going to be quite difficult trying to define hate speech and hate crime in legislation. And also to get a reasonable balance between protection from hate speech and free speech.

Stuff: Hate crime law review fast-tracked following Christchurch mosque shootings

Currently, hate-motivated hostility can be considered an “aggravating factor” in sentencing, and staff can note when a crime was motivated by a “common characteristic” such as race, gender identity, sexual orientation, or religion.

Overall, there is no way of knowing how many offences are hate crimes and police do not even routinely record the ethnicity of victims.

Little said he had asked the Justice Ministry to look at relevant aspects of the Human Rights Act, the Harmful Digital Communications Act, and sections of the Crimes Act to see what laws needed to be changed or added.

“I certainly think that the laws dealing with what we call ‘hate speech’, and human rights law, are woefully inadequate,” Little said.

The tolerance for what had been considered acceptable had been too high, he said. Ethnic minorities needed to not only be accepted, but embraced and welcomed.

“It’s timely to make sure that for those who would want to hurt others – even through words – that we can curtail that.”

Somehow a legal line has to be drawn between fair reporting and debate, and speech aimed at hurting, intimidating, alienating.

The Human Rights Commission collects “race-related complaints” but says it has an incomplete picture of the problem. It has been calling for a national recording system to be set up.

The commission’s chief legal advisor Janet Anderson Bidois said there were “grave anomalies” in the current law.

“For example, the Human Rights Act prohibits the ‘incitement of disharmony’ on the basis of race, ethnicity, colour or national origins, but it does not cover incitement for reasons of religion, gender, disability or sexual orientation,” she said.

“We maintain that a discussion about our current hate speech laws is overdue, and that urgent action is required in relation to the recording of hate crimes.”

This will be a challenge for all of us.

Especially as the review has been prompted by the Christchurch mosque attacks, a lot of discussion will focus on Islam and Muslims, who have been ostracised and targeted in generalised attacks that go further than criticism.

Some attacks on Muslims have become quite sophisticated, trying to couch attacks in reasonable terms. One common tactic is to cherry pick pieces out of old religious texts and imply this is representative of  all Muslims, including by implication Muslims in New Zealand.

Claims of justification because ‘it is just facts’ don’t wash – it is easy to group selected ‘facts’ (often actually quotes from historic texts, which aren’t facts) in a derogatory or fear-mongering manner.

The same tactic can be used by cherry picking bits out of the Old Testament to smear modern Christians, but it is done far more to blanket smear modern Muslims who have a wide variety of practices and cultures.

It will be hard to stop hate and fear and intolerance of other cultures, races and religions – this can be ingrained in some people.

It will also be hard to prevent this hate and fear and intolerance being used to attack groups of people, while still allowing for relatively free speech and open discussion about things that are pertinent to life in New Zealand.

This is also a challenge for social media and blog moderators.

I will do what I can to encourage debate proposals to change hate speech and hate crime laws, but preventing these discussions from becoming hateful or from mass targeting where it is not warranted by circumstances.