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Mouthing off on free speech

The government formally backed off introducing new hate speech laws [for now, at least] in February, after promising for several years that it would follow through on a recommendation to strengthen existing legislation from the royal commission of inquiry into 2019’s shocking attacks on Christchurch mosques.

Initially, it was promised existing hate speech laws would be expanded to include verbal and written attacks on individuals or groups based on gender, sexuality, or religion, which aren’t currently covered by the law. Then the government indicated its new provisions would just cover religion, before the entire proposal was put on the backburner [or, more specifically, turfed onto newly anointed Prime Minister Chris Hipkins’ “policy bonfire”] in order to concentrate on “bread and butter” issues.

Although the need to “refocus” on economic issues was the excuse, it’s hard not to conclude the real reason was a [very] slowly dawning awareness that the issue of hate speech versus free speech is a great deal more complex than they’d realised.

Cabinet’s paddling pool depth of comprehension on the issue was demonstrated several times by different justice ministers tasked with pushing the policy forward, as well as Jacinda Ardern who – when still prime minister – was unable to define what constitutes hate speech, while still insisting that she’d know it when she saw it. That said, credit to [current at press time] justice minister Kiri Allan who, in March this year, had got her head around the issue enough to observe “the balance between hate speech and free speech has proven to be complex and divisive”.

It’s also tempting to believe it was ultimately decided to shelve the new law when it was belatedly understood that expanded hate speech laws penalising those targeting New Zealand’s Muslim community would also offer increased protection against some forms of robust criticism to Brian Tamaki and other conservative Christians.

Certainly, the complexity of the issue has recently been illustrated by the Federation of Islamic Associations of New Zealand [FIANZ] voicing its unease about the way in which many schools observed last month’s Pride Week [the annual celebration of the LGBTQIA+ community]. Had the government already pushed through its initial iteration of hate speech reform, the group whose safety had prompted the proposed legislation in the first place may well have fallen foul of the legislation meant to protect it.

FIANZ – among others – have claimed that free speech supporters tend to be “privileged”, and that hate speech reform is required to protect minority groups. It’d be nice to think those who hold this view may amend it in light of newly released NZ research that finds vulnerable minority groups benefit most from strong protections for free speech.

Still, it’s difficult to keep a dumb idea down, and now the Department of Internal Affairs has entered the arena with a proposal of Orwellian proportions to curb Kiwis’ free speech under the guise of keeping us “safer” from “harm”.

Expect another editorial on that specifically in the next week or so but, in the meantime, I cannot recommend enough that you “do your own research” on this Content Regulatory Review, while such activity is still permissible.

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