An unholy alliance from the left and the right is already attacking the Government’s hate speech proposals unveiled last Friday.
Under the proposals, the current offence of exciting hostility or ill-will against or bringing into contempt or ridicule any group on the grounds of their colour, race, or ethnic or national origins would now be extended and moved from the Human Rights Act to the Crimes Act.
Penalties would increase from up to three months imprisonment or a fine of up to $7,000 to up to three years’ imprisonment or a fine of up to $50,000.
In a discussion document published on Friday, the Ministry of Justice said protection under this definition could be for “some or all” of the following reasons: sex (including pregnancy and childbirth); marital status; religious belief; ethical belief; colour; race; disability; physical or psychiatric illness; intellectual disability; “or abnormality of a physiological, or anatomical structure or function.”
The list goes on to include people using wheelchairs, reliance on a guide dog; age; sexual orientation, and “political opinion, which includes the lack of a particular political opinion or any political opinion.”
National Party Leader Judith Collins has been quite explicit in her opposition to the proposals.
“The National Party will reverse any attempts Jacinda Ardern’s Government makes to criminalise speech beyond the threshold of ‘inciting violence,’ she said yesterday.
“To frame these proposed laws as a response to the atrocity in Christchurch is disingenuous at best. There is no evidence to support the idea that ‘hate speech laws would have prevented the massacre.
Collins said the proposals were about control “about ensuring that only approved opinions are allowed and making questioning those opinions criminal.
“The matter of who decides what opinions are acceptable is unclear.”
ACT Leader David Seymour said the proposals were a huge win for cancel culture and would create an even more divided society.
“What sort of government promotes social cohesion by having the state go around punishing people for unpopular views?” he said.
“This is a solution looking for a problem and will take away basic rights to free speech; it will shut down debate and make people too afraid to express valid opinions.”
Those comments might have been expected, but then the left-wing website “The Standard” joined the fray.
Responding to a post “Oppose this new hate speech law”, the site’s moderator, Lynn Prentice, said he had to agree.
“The problem isn’t the hate speech,” he wrote.
“As a society, we can deal with demented dimwits.
“It isn’t the intent that is the problem.
“I am perfectly happy calling a demented dimwit out for who I think they are. So are many others.
The problem is when a demented dimwit gets enough power like automatic weapons, bomb-making components, or other tools of mass death.
“That allows them to cause damage far outside their normal abilities to convince and convert.
“We need to control the potential actions. Not people’s ability to defend with words against the words of idiots.”
Speaking on Newshub’s “The Nation” on Saturday, Justice Minister Kris Faafoi said the proposals would send a strong message to people who looked to incite hatred that the Government was taking it seriously.
He maintained that the proposals would still allow freedom of expression.
“Freedom of expression is extremely important, right. But it is not absolute,” he said.
“And there are examples already of that in the law.
“And I think what we are saying here is that if people hold an opinion and want to express that to me, if I’ve got a different sexual orientation or a different skin colour, then they could still do that.
“They’ll be unpopular, I think, for most New Zealanders. And they might be racist, but they certainly wouldn’t necessarily meet the criminal test that we’re proposing here today.”
Asked who would decide whether a political opinion contravened the law, Faafoi said there was freedom to express that “, but your intent might not be to incite hatred against us.”
Asked who would decide that, he said “the police”.
“I think we want to make sure we protect the freedom of. Of individuals protect the freedom of the media and also if you want to take a prosecution against someone under the current regime for hate speech in a criminal sense, then you do have to get the sign off of the attorney general, so there are some there are some checks and balances along the way so that that power doesn’t necessarily get abused,” he said.
However, it is unclear whether the Attorney General will be required to sign off prosecutions under the proposals tabled on Friday.
And whether having the Attorney General, a Cabinet Minister, decide whether something is political hate speech might not be viewed as an impartial judgement.
The proposals have their origins in the report of the Royal Commission into the Christchurch terrorist attack.
That said that hate speech should be shifted from the Human Rights Act to the Crimes Act “to reflect the seriousness of the offences and increase the resulting penalty.
“It should be reframed to focus on stirring up or provoking hatred against a group of persons defined by protected characteristics which should include religious affiliation.”
The proposals unveiled on Friday, however, by including “some or all” of the “prohibited grounds for discrimination” listed in the Human Rights Act, have gone well beyond the current specific list of grounds for prosecution for inciting racial disharmony.
The proposals are open for public consultation.