I recall feeling pleased back in 1971 when the government passed the Race Relations Act and appointed the first Race Relations Conciliator. It seemed there would finally be some redress against the nasty racism practiced against Māori such as when trying to rent homes or get private sector services. (For example, Pukekohe was known as a centre for anti-Māori racism – see “No Māori Allowed” by Robert Bartholomew. A later Race Relations Conciliator Hiwi Tauroa said as a young man he couldn’t get a haircut in the town because he was Māori)
There was certainly progress in “outing” racism in Aotearoa-New Zealand through the Race Relation Conciliator’s public role but later in the 1970s I recall the majority of complaints to the office were from Pākehā infuriated by “racist” statements by Māori activists and claiming Pākehā rights had been infringed.
A majority culture will often feel threatened by ignorance-generated fear of others and while anti-Māori racism was at the forefront then, Islamophobia and expressions of white supremacy are in the spotlight now as highlighted by the terrorist attack on the Christchurch Muslim community.
Into this mix comes the government’s proposal to enact new “hate speech” laws in line with the recommendations of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into these attacks.
The government is considering creating a new, clearer hate speech offence in the Crimes Act, removing it from the Human Rights Act.
That would mean anyone who “intentionally stirs up, maintains or normalises hatred against a protected group” by being “threatening, abusive or insulting, including by inciting violence” would break the law.
The punishment for hate speech offences could also increase – from up to three months’ imprisonment or a fine of up to $7000, to up to three years’ imprisonment or a fine of up to $50,000.
The groups protected from hate speech could also grow – the government is considering changing the language and widening the incitement provisions in the Human Rights Act.
It has not yet decided which groups will be added. That is expected to happen following public consultation.
There are serious concerns in this proposal about issues of freedom of speech as have been passionately expressed on this blog and these are well-founded. In fact I think it will be the Muslim community and progressive voices who are more likely to feel the harsh edge of this law in a similar way to that experienced by Māori under the Race Relations Act.
Is it too far-fetched to see police under pressure to act (or even private prosecutions being launched) against Palestine solidarity activists on the basis that when we chant “From the river to the sea – Palestine will be free”* because it is claimed to be “threatening, abusive or insulting” to members of the Jewish community – which presumably would be a “protected group” under the proposed new law?
If you don’t think that’s likely then read this piece of despicable garbage from the Israel Institute’s David Cumin (ironically one of the spokespeople for the Free Speech Coalition) To accuse people who have spent their lives fighting racism in all its forms – including anti-semitism – as “calling for the murder of Jews” is unforgiveable. It says a lot about the pro-Israeli lobby becoming more desperate and hysterical than ever as they lose the public debate.
Needless to say Cumin himself and the New Zealand Jewish Council are apologists for deep-seated anti-Arab and anti-Palestinian racism.
So what should we do to protect vulnerable communities? Surely everyone has the right to feel safe and at home in Aotearoa-New Zealand?
Absolutely. Many of the concerns I have seen expressed around this relate to Muslim women in particular facing harassment, abuse and offensive behaviour and sometimes even having their hijabs grabbed. Similar experiences are had by other minority groups. However, we already have laws to deal with such abusive and deplorable behaviour in our Summary Offences Act of 1981:
Section 4: Offensive behaviour or language
(1) Every person is liable to a fine not exceeding $1,000 who,—
(a) in or within view of any public place, behaves in an offensive or disorderly manner; or
(b) in any public place, addresses any words to any person intending to threaten, alarm, insult, or offend that person; or
(c) in or within hearing of a public place,—
(i) uses any threatening or insulting words and is reckless whether any person is alarmed or insulted by those words; or
(ii) addresses any indecent or obscene words to any person.
Adapting this law to the new situation faced by minority groups is surely the best way forward rather than creating a new crime relating to speech. Similarly grabbing a woman’s hijab is assault and could be dealt with as such.
A similar approach should be taken for harassment and abuse on-line rather than creating a new law which by its very name sounds draconian and 1984ish.
It is likely our existing law needs to be strengthened when it comes to “inciting discrimination, hostility or violence” against minority communities but there is no need for specific “hate speech” legislation.
When he announced this proposed legislation last week Justice Minister Kris Fa’afoi said
“…abusive or threatening speech that incites can divide communities.
“Building social cohesion, inclusion and valuing diversity can also be a powerful means of countering the actions of those who seek to spread or entrench discrimination and hatred.”
That last point is critical. Legislation outlawing “hate speech” and driving it underground to fester will NOT build social cohesion. Social cohesion comes from making it socially unacceptable to abuse or threaten minority groups. This requires ALL OF US to call out this behaviour whenever or wherever we see it. It’s all our responsibilities rather than telling vulnerable communities they have to go to the police seeking a prosecution so they can feel safe.
Prosecutions will be necessary but are NOT A REPLACEMENT for community solidarity.
Let’s adapt our existing legislation rather than putting in place “feel good” legislation which comes with its own awful side effects.