The Criminalization Of Hate Speech In New Zealand

On June 25th, 2021, the New Zealand government announced that they will propose to strengthen their nation’s laws around hate speech. Al Jazeera reported that proposals to strengthen these laws came from the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the terrorist attack on Christchurch Mosques. The inquiry, investigating the 2019 terrorist attacks, suggested that there are changes needed regarding hate speech and criminal laws in New Zealand, as the current laws are weak against such hate crimes. There will be increased penalties for those who commit crimes, such as intentionally inciting hatred through violent threats or actions. NZ Herald author, Kate Scotcher, reported that public consultation has commenced. This involves the encouragement of the New Zealand public to submit their input towards the proposed laws, which can also be beneficial to strengthening social cohesion.

However, some believe that harsher changes in the hate speech laws will impede the public’s freedom of speech. ACT political party’s leader, David Seymour, expressed in an interview with TVNZ that increased penalties towards hate speech will damage “New Zealanders’ belief in their ability to express themselves.” He argues that prosecuting someone based on their opinion impedes their freedom of speech, and does not solve the root cause of society’s discriminatory issues, as the language is criminalized rather than certain acts.

As mentioned before, these came about from the Christchurch mosque attacks where white supremacist, Brenton Tarrant, killed 51 people at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. The BBC describes Tarrant’s motives as hatred or fear of Muslims, which contributes to the Inquiry’s push for strengthening laws around hate speech and crime.

Although the proposed laws are a non-violent way of countering hate crimes in New Zealand, the government must be cautious of how they intend to implement hate crime laws as David Seymour’s concern has merit. If the language is criminalized, it may take away people’s liberty to express their opinions, which is going against one’s basic human rights. Nevertheless, to avoid taking away these human rights, the laws must have specificity in what type of speech counts as a hate crime. Therefore, in the New Zealand context, the government has a positive approach in attempting to involve the public in these processes to ensure that their voices are heard regarding the laws and their effect.

This public approach safeguards a democratic society, however, the New Zealand government needs to ensure that they use the public response and their political power appropriately. Political checks are necessary to avoid the government using their political power to change laws in an authoritarian manner, as David Seymour expresses, and they should also consider other methods of countering hate crimes other than criminalizing language. Methods like addressing the root causes and risk factors of hate crime are some areas to consider, as criminalizing language itself, mixed with the language of the law, could lead to misinterpretations.

There is no doubt that the government has the right intentions in trying to remove hatred and discrimination from New Zealand society. However, to achieve these goals, they must use their political power carefully and appropriately, ensuring clarity, and avoiding any impede on human rights.