02 July 2021

New laws on hate speech: Proposal Two, a consolidation of law against threats or another step too far?

 So Proposal One will prohibit publishing, broadcasting or using words in a public place that are threatening, abusive, or insulting to anyone on the grounds of a wide range of factors. It would also prohibit expressions with intent to excite hostility or ill-will against or bring into contempt or ridicule on a wide range of grounds. These grounds include political opinion, ethical opinion and religious belief, all of which should send chills down the spines of anyone who even claims to be remotely liberal.  

Threats and abuse are actions that give rise for concern, but the state does not exist to protect people from being insulted because of what they think.  Likewise, exciting hostility (which is threatening) also gives rise for concern, but ill-will, contempt and ridicule are entirely legitimate emotions against political ideologies, ethical positions and religious dogmatism. Christians should not be protected from Monty Python, which intends to ridicule their religion, but neither should Muslims be protected from Charlie Hebdo. I shouldn’t even have to explain why political and ethical positions shouldn’t be protected.

So what about Proposal Two?

This is where it gets a little complicated, because it proposes to amend one of the Sections discussed in Proposal One by replacing it altogether.

It proposes to replace the criminal provision in the Human Rights Act (S.131) with a provision in the Crimes Act and replace the words “excite hostility, ill will, bring into contempt or ridicule” with “incite” or “stir up” “hatred.  

It would be a crime to:

1. intentionally incite/stir up, maintain or normalise hatred

2. against any group protected from discrimination by section 21 of the Human Rights Act

3. through threatening, abusive or insulting communications, including inciting violence

4. made by any means.

This has a kernel of merit. There should be clear provisions on inciting violence, but it should not be confined to groups listed in S.21 of the Human Rights Act, it should apply to ANYONE. Similar threatening communications should be illegal as it is threatening an initiation of force. 

However, it once again wants to criminalise abuse and insults if the intention is to incite hatred. However, once again, why should there be protection on the grounds of political belief or ethical belief? Why shouldn’t people hate communists, advocates of sex with children or ISIS? What is morally wrong with inciting hatred against groups that advocate violence against others? The obvious question is what about all other groups? Should the law make it a crime to stir up hatred against groups based on immutable characteristics? Most importantly, where does religion fit into this?  Religion is sometimes an identity equivalent to ethnic identity. After all, the divisions in Northern Ireland aren’t really about the source of interpretation of scripture, but a form of tribalism – and such hatred is utterly toxic and irrational. Yet religion itself is a source of power, and ethical and political belief, and so should not be protected from those who hate those beliefs. Dr. Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens both regarded all religions will contempt and even hatred, so why should that be at risk of prohibition? Indeed why should similar beliefs by the religious against atheists also be prohibited?

However there is more to this.  How will inciting hatred be interpreted? Is challenging Maori ethno-nationalism going to be seen as inciting hatred against Maori? Is challenging trans-gender activism going to seen as stirring up hatred against trans-gender people?  How much of an incentive is there for protected groups to claim this is exactly what critics are seeking to do?  If the answers to this are unclear, then this proposal should be rejected as well.

I'm all for a clear criminal provision on inciting violence and expressing threats to anyone (of any form of initiated force or fraud), but the idea there should be a law against promoting hatred against groups defined by what members of those groups think, or that it can be used to shut down criticism of what people think because it is claimed to be about their protected status is fundamentally illiberal and unacceptable in a free society.

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