Legal Beagle by Graeme Edgeler


The New New Prohibition

In the decades leading up to the 18th Amendment, the case for the prohibition of alcohol was made repeatedly. The harms of alcohol were substantial, and the US experience was worse than most. The victims made the case, and campaigners made the case for those who couldn’t speak for themselve. You might think there are issues with alcohol consumption still today. In the late 1800s, per capita consumption was three times what it is now.

The need to protect people from the nation of drunkards was obvious. The problems were pressing. And a decades-long campaign pushed for the constitutional amendment that would be needed to give the Federal Government the authority to ban liquor.

And it worked. They got the law change. Alcohol didn’t go away, but consumption dropped. But it didn’t really work. New alcohol harms arose, which the US continues to live with today. Despite the problems caused by alcohol, the problems caused by alcohol prohibition were greater, and then for the only time, the US Constitution was amended to repeal an amendment.

We have seen this again. The problems of drug addiction are well known, but the problems with drug prohibition are also well-known. There are even problems with non-punitive drug interventions such as the D.A.R.E. programme, participation in which appears to have correlated with increased drug use.

We may be facing a similar issue with hate speech. The government and the Royal Commission have done reasonable jobs in establishing that there is a problem. And they have been supported in this by people from communities that are often the target of hate speech (albeit most of the examples given of hate speech by vulnerable communities are of speech that wouldn’t be covered by this proposal, and some people within those communities have raised concerns that hate speech regulation may in fact increase hate incidents).

But making the case that there is a problem is very different from arguing that you have a solution to that problem. And this is something the government simply has not done.

Does the government think it’s proposals will decrease hatred and increase cohesion? It hasn’t really said. It appears to hope they will, but can it explain why?

What countries have good hate speech laws? Whose law has been appropriately applied, without unintended chilling effects against non-hate speech? And which, ideally, has had a positive overall effect on domestic tranquility and ehanced social cohesion?

Does the government have a sense of which countries have had poor (or poorly implemented) hate speech laws? What lessons has it learned from those countries?

I sought examples of countries with good hate speech laws on twitter some time ago, and someone suggested Ireland was one jurisdiction that had done well with its hate speech legislation. And it is generally agreed that the United Kingdom has gone overboard (albeit its worst excesses have been under general speech laws rather than its hate incitement law). But the English hate incitement law and the Irish hate incitement law are essentially paraphrases of each other: they have the same wording in the elements of the offence, using “stir up”, and “hatred”, and cover approximately the same groups (the Irish law adds membership of the travelling community and sexual orientation, which aren’t currently in the English equivalent).

What lessons has the government learned from countries whose experience of hate speech laws has been poor? Whose hate speech laws haven’t just failed to arrest hateful speech, but have instead preceded a less harmonious, more divided society? Does it even acknowledge that that can be a consequence? How does it intend to ensure that New Zealand is a country whose experience of hate speech regulation is a positive one, and not one that not only fails to reduce hate, but perhaps increases it?

Because, as with prohibition – of alcohol, or drugs – this is a major risk. The evidence that hate incitement laws actually do that much about hate is weak.

And most importantly, does the Government even know what it wants to ban?

It has refused to be drawn on hypotheticals offered by journalists and the public, but could it give us some of its own?

What type of currently legal speech does the Government want Parliament to criminalise?

Dr Edward Clark of Victoria University of Wellington has given one example. He thinks the law change should ban this. Does the Government? We don’t know.

I want ridiculously specific examples.

I know what the Royal Commission’s legislative proposal would say, and the what the Royal Commission said that would mean, and how the Courts applied the old law. And I can explain all of those things. But I could have done that with National’s amendments to the Bail Act, and look how they turned out.

There are going to be people who insist that misgendering someone will become illegal. I am relatively clear it would not, under the proposals as they stand, but I am not making charging decisions, nor sitting on juries.

Would someone making statements similar to those made by Israel Folau be at risk? Would cartoons like Jyllands-Posten’s, which were reprinted in several New Zealand newspapers in solidarity be illegal? How about Charlie Hebdo’s? There were activists who wanted the mayor of Wellington to declare a state of emergency in order to stop the harm they said would be done by Speak Up For Women’s recent meeting to discuss the Births, Deaths, Marriages and Relationships Amendment Bill. Does the government think the statements made at a meeting like that should be illegal? How about the statements made by the people protesting outside?

We need the government to be able to say “no”. Or perhaps “yes”.

Because we do not know it when we see it.

An important component of the rule of law (perhaps the most important) is certainty. The law should be declared in advance so that people can comply with it. And the biggest problem for people who will try to moderate their behaviour in response to a new criminal law isn’t whether they can recognise a bunch of things that will be covered by it, it’s whether they can recognise what things won’t. Because if it is not clear, then important, protected speech will be chilled.

As discussed in this piece, there is the fear of second order effects. Whatever you think of the law itself, there is a real risk it simply causes other things to happen, because of the signal it sends to police and to courts.

There are also the standard reasons to oppose any criminal law. Imprisoning people is really bad. It affects them. It affects their partners, and children. The effects are intergenerational. You should reserve imprisonment for the worst types of offending, where these consequences are truly justifiable.

But beyond imprisonment, prosecution itself is massively harmful.

Imposing criminal justice processes on people should be reserved for situations where the consequences of subjecting people to criminal processes are justified by the harm done by an alleged crime. This is especially so when we are dealing with what might be prosecutions for speech we might ultimately find out – perhaps after multiple appeals – isn’t just not criminal hate speech, but is legislatively protected free speech. Liam Hehir describes these concerns as well as I could here:

For those caught up in it, the process is the punishment

So let’s say you make a controversial political statement and some deranged person on Twitter or whatever decides to lay a police complaint about it.

An officious police officer decides to investigate you for it. You then have the anxiety of having an investigation hanging over your head. While the investigation is ongoing, and who knows how long it will take, it will be the first thing you think about in the morning and the last thing you think about before you go to sleep.

If a prosecution is brought, you could then face expensive and stressful court processes. It could go all the way to the Supreme Court - then back down to the lower courts again - then up again. All in all your case could spend years working its way through the Byzantine legal system before any sense of finality is reached.

All of this time and effort will be on top of your regular job since the fact that you are caught up in a time consuming prosecution does not relieve you of the need to make a living. Quite the opposite, in fact, since you would be a fool not to use a lawyer and they're not cheap. The investigators and prosecutors, on the other hand, are just doing their day job, have nothing at risk and are being paid to make your life an ordeal.

The costs of victory can be very steep

You might ultimately win that case. If so you get your name in the law reports and lecturers in law schools up and down the country can cite the case as an example of the law working as planned. That might feel like a moral victory. 

In no other sense will you consider yourself to have won anything.

In fact there’s a good chance your life will be wrecked anyway. As we’ve seen in places like the United States, a common response to somebody being vindicated in one set of proceedings is the launch of another set. When it becomes a tool in the hands of the motivated, the law can be a blunt and unforgiving weapon.

This assumes you have the stomach to see the whole thing through, of course. In practice, the easier thing to do is just not speak your mind on an issue of controversy. Which if you’re inclined to a more controlled discourse you might think is a good thing - but that’s because you favour political censorship.

Voltaire once said: “I was never ruined but twice: once when I lost a lawsuit, and once when I won one.” It’s absolutely true. In Canadian and American jurisprudence they call this a chilling effect, which refers to the voluntary curtailment of rights through fear of the disproportionate stress and anxiety inflicted on people by the legal system.

The Government has the numbers to pass a law, but if it wants to bring the public with it, it should be starting now. A government passing any law should be able to answer questions like those I ask above. It hasn’t yet. And until it can, there’s no way it should be legislating.


Political opinion and the proper scope of hate speech laws; a post in honour of John Campbell

I was alerted late last week to the fact that John Campbell had used one of my earlier pieces in questioning the Prime Minister about the Government’s hate speech proposals, in particular focussing the lack of clarity in the Government’s announcements. Thanks John!

One issue that Campbell raised, that I haven’t yet addressed here, is the proposal that protections from hate speech might be extended to groups defined by their political opinion. This is a particularly controversial aspect of the government’s proposed changes, with even people strongly supportive of hate speech reform concerned about overreach. While the Government agreed in principle that hate speech protections should be expanded to all the protected classes in the Human Rights Act, it has more recently appears to be in two minds. Most (perhaps even all) of the strong defences of widening the protections against hate speech I have read, say they are concerned that expanding protections to groups defined by their politics: they agree the criminal offence should expand from the race/nationality/ethnicity it currently covers to other grounds such a religion, sex/gender, and sexuality, but think expanding to all of the grounds may be going too far. Victoria University’s Dr. Edward Clark has suggested that the grounds contained in the Harmful Digital Communications Act might be a compromise.

I remain sceptical of the government’s hate speech proposals: I don’t believe the government has made the case for them, and I especially don’t believe it has explained nearly well enough the expression it wants its laws to cover, nor more importantly, the expression it wants to leave alone. I am very much open to the idea perhaps we shouldn’t change the law at all.

But if we do change the laws, the question of political opinion is one point on which I have most strongly formed an opinion. Any new hate speech protections should absolutely extend to every single one of the protected grounds in the Human Rights Act, including political opinion.

I suspect I may be the only person who has said this.

Opposition to the expansion of hate speech offences to political opinion often rests on the idea that expressions of political opinion should not be regulated by the criminal law. I agree. But expansion of hate speech offences to political opinion isn’t (or shouldn’t be!) about expressions of political opinion, it should be about – like the rest of any proper hate speech law – about expressions of hatred: hatred directed toward groups of people based on their status, and perhaps likely* to inspire hatred by others toward them as well.

(*the current proposal does not include a requirement that to be criminal, hate speech would actually have to be likely to incite hatred, which is one thing the Government has raised for discussion. The Royal Commission said it shouldn’t – because the bar of stirring up hatred is so high, intention should be enough – but I suspect this is one area the Government will reconsider.)

Any justifiable hate speech law will only capture the worst of what might colloquially be called hate speech. We’re not talking about speech that directly encourages violence (that is hopefully dealt with elsewhere), but it would cover speech which may create a culture in which violence can flourish. This is speech which might lead to people being emboldened to abuse others in public, and which accordingly may cause people to retreat from public life and public spaces.

Ultimately – with the Christchurch terror attacks in the background – we are talking about speech said to increase the likelihood of terrorism and genocide. The aim is only to catch the worst of the worst, the most vile, hatred-inspiring speech. If the government’s intention really is to only proscribe the very worst type of hate speech, then there should be no concern about protecting beneficiaries, or unmarried people, or holders of particular political opinions. You will, of course, still be able to inspire ridicule and contempt, which is proposed to be decriminalised. Maybe that’s still not enough, but that debate is about the scope of the offence, not the groups it protects.

There are three basic question to address when formulating a general hate speech offence like the Government is proposing:

  1. What expression should be covered? (the government says published material that is threatening, abusive or insulting)
  2. Whom must the expression be about? (the government says, at present, the classes of people protected from unlawful discrimination under the Human Rights Act)
  3. What intention and consequence the expression must be conveyed with? (the government proposal is with the intention of stirring up hatred, although with the likelihood of hatred being stirred up irrelevant)

    In assessing whether the law goes too far, we are mostly looking at point three. The use of insult in the answer to the first question concerns some people, but were you to remove the words "threatening, abusive or insulting" entirely, and replace them with “publishes or communicates any words or material” you wouldn’t greatly expand the scope of banned expression, because point three is so limiting. If extending point two to cover groups of people defined by their political opinion causes you concern, your problem is really with either point one or point three: you are concerned that we will capture too much speech, and that the standard has been set too low. If we were only catching the worst speech, extending the protection to groups defined by their political opinion should not be a problem.

    This suggested amendment has its genesis in the Report of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the terrorist attack on Christchurch masjidain. While there is no evidence that the Christchurch terrorist was radicalised in New Zealand (and ample evidence he wasn’t), the New Zealand Government wishes to play its part in reducing the risk of radicalisation in the future. The theory is, if New Zealand plays its part, and other countries do their bit as well, then maybe if not eliminating terrorism, it may nonetheless be reduced.

    Now, maybe the evidence it will work is weak. Maybe evidence suggests that criminalising more hate speech may in fact increase the radicalisation of people who feel at the margins, but the point is: the aim of the law is to (hopefully) reduce terrorism, by lessening an environment in which radicalisation may flourish.

    And if that is the aim, and the law is tightly drawn to focus on the worst speech which might lead to that, and is not focussed on common impoliteness, or political or religious debate or criticism (even harshly phrased, perhaps likely to lead to ridicule), and it recognises that it should even be permissible to inspire hatred of say a religion, or of a political opinion, if your expression does not also inspire hatred of people who share that religion, or opinion (that’s a difficult line to draw in practice, but it is one the proposal does, albeit only implicitly), then the law itself shouldn’t be the problem.

    If you have correctly calibrated the law being doing all of those things, then why would you want to protect the group of people defined by their status as refugees, or as unemployed, or having a particular political opinion? What type of speech is it that you – with so narrowly defined a law – want to permit that such a law would prohibit? What speech about a group of people defined by their race, or their religion or their sexuality, is it you want to prohibit, but you think would be absolutely fine if directed at members of the Green Party, or supporters of immigration and multiculturalism, or some other political opinion?

    It is instructive to contrast the terror attack in 2019 Christchurch terror attacks with the 2011 terror attack in Norway. There are a lot of similarities, with some suggestion that the Christchurch terrorist was inspired by the Norwegian terrorist. But there is an important distinction worth dwelling on.

    The Christchurch terrorist selected his victims based on their religion. They were targeted because they were Muslim.

    The bombing in Oslo was of a building house the office of the Prime Minister. The victims on the island of Utøya were attending a summer camp as members of the Worker’s Youth League (a political group affiliated with the Norwegian Labour Party).

    If we are truly intending to pass a law to diminish the likelihood of terrorism, is that really where we want to draw the line? Seeking to limit speech aimed at creating a culture which might inspire someone to attack a place of worship is justifiable, but speech aimed at creating a culture which might inspire someone to attack a group defined by their support for multiculturism is goes too far?

    Now, maybe banning even the worst of the worst hate speech is actually a bad idea, or even counter productive. But if you are sufficiently convinced it is a good idea that you support some version of the Government’s proposal (perhaps with “likely” added back or, or “insult” removed), why wouldn’t you want to expand the protection to all of the protected classes in the Human Rights Act?

    I have in part, an ulterior motive here. A major concern is that the proposal will not be narrowly targeted, and will have the effect of banning speech that we would not want banned. If there is to be a law change, I want to ensure as far as possible that the law:

    • Only bans the very worst, most hateful speech; and
    • is clear, so that we all know what is banned, and what is not; and finally
    • that those involved in enforcing the law: police, prosecutors and Courts to be strongly incentivised to not seek to push boundaries.

      I think back to the Harmful Digital Communications Act. There were many concerns with the criminal offence it contains. While the civil process provides for a set of priciples that create a helpful balancing exercise, which explicitly recognises the important of freedom of expression and other societal interests in play in the public dissemination of ideas, the criminal offence is drafted in a way which does not. On its face, it does not protect fair and accurate reports of news in the public interest. Of course, while the offence should be fixed, in reality, I am not all that concerned that an online news report of say an allegation of sexual assault will actually lead to a conviction under the HDCA for intending to cause the perpetrator harm. I do not think a court would ever convict, even if you looked at the elements of the offence and determined “Yes, credibly accusing someone of rape is likely to cause them serious emotional distress.”

      Select Committee submission made on behalf of news media on the Harmful Digital Communications Bill strongly pushed against the idea that news media should be covered by it. They said that Broadcasting Standards, and Media Council guidelines were sufficient to protect the public from bad reporting.

      While news media have exemptions from some laws (for example, you cannot make a privacy act request for information they hold about you obtained through their newsgathering activities, and they can attend court hearings in criminal cases, even when the public is excluded), I did not support one in the HDCA. The types of things that should be banned by a law like the Harmful Digital Communications Act are things that no news organisation should get remotely close to ever publishing. And if they do publish something that would appropriately see a non-journalist like me face criminal charges, they should face them too.

      I want the courts to read down the overly broad criminal offence in the HDCA, and knowing that news media are there with the rest of us makes that much more likely. The inclusion of news media in the HDCA is protective against overly expansive rulings that unjustifiably reduce freedom of expression.

      And maybe the inclusion of groups defined by their political opinion, will ensure that those drafting and enforcing hate speech laws will be appropriately circumspect, only targeting with the law what can truly be justified. Because we will be incentivised to permit harsh criticism of political opinions without that being held to be stirring up hatred of holders of those views, and because we will want to allow ridicule of them, then these things will also be protected in other areas, like discussion of religion, and any expanded hate speech law will not become a de facto blasphemy law.

      But this really is secondary. If you could convince me that all of my other concerns about the hate speech reforms are wrong, and could prove that there is no risk of them being abused by Police, or misapplied by the Courts, and there would be no second order effects discouraging lawful speech, I would still want political opinion included, for the same reason that is already in the Human Rights Act.

      There are difficult questions in discrimination law. But there are easy questions in discrimination. Some things are just more important.

      Food is necessary for life, so supermarkets shouldn’t be permitted to refuse service to people with disabilities, or the unemployed. Housing is needed too, so landlords shouldn’t be permitted to refuse to rent to people because of their ethnicity.

      Employment is more delicately balanced. Everyone should be able to get work, without a protected status being held against them, so you wouldn’t want a cleaning company to be able to refuse to hire someone because they were Muslim, but do you want to ban a church-run Christian-based after school programme from doing the same (perhaps yes, but only in some roles, not others)? Perhaps you do think that so long as a person can do the job, even that sort of role shouldn’t have a religious requirement (even if say, the appointment of a Minister of religion does). But that is a harder question, with a less obvious answer.

      But where does protection for hate speech fall? If we’re truly capturing the worst of the worst speech: speech that when repeated often enough, by the wrong people, in the wrong way, makes genocide more likely, encourages terrorism, and makes random attacks and abuse more likely, then surely this is one of the easier questions?

      These are groups that are protected from discrimination in employment, in access to housing and education and the provision of goods and services, etc. Are there really groups that we want to protect from such discrimination, but would be okay with them being subjected to culture-of-terrorism-enhancing speech?

      I suggest not. If a group of people is unworthy of protection within a hate speech law designed to ensure social cohesion and the ability to take part without fear in daily and public life, then the problem isn’t the hate speech law, the problem is the list of protected groups in the Human Rights Act. If New Zealand is to expand its hate speech laws to protect other groups, it ought to protect all of the groups protected by section 21 of the Human Rights Act.

      If there is some group we decide we do not want protected from this, then we should be deleting it from the Human Rights Act. But I, for one, am fine with the list. We should protect the groups listed in s 21 from discrimination in their daily lives. And if we conclude hate speech laws will help, and will not risk doing more harm than good, we should not be passing a law to criminalise speech likely to increase the chance of another attack like that in Christchurch, while accepting that speech likely to increase the chance of an attack like that in Norway is the price we pay for living in a free society.


      A Story in Three Acts; or Hate Speech and Second Order Effects

      [This takes a while to get there, but I promise this is a part of my series on hate speech reform]

      In 2013, the National government introduced amendments to the Bail Act. These have been controversial over the last several years, as they seemingly led to a massive increase in the remand population.

      Except there is no way its bail law did this. The Department of Corrections estimated that the amendment would increase the prison population by approximately 50 people. This was an excellent estimate, because they knew exactly how many people each year would be affected by the law change. For the vast majority of bail decisions, the Bail Amendment Bill would change nothing. The legal test was the same as it had been for years.

      Basically the only people whom the law change affected were people charged with murder (less than 100 per year), and people charged with an offence from a specified list of particularly serious offences (to which National added six additional also serious offences), and who already had a conviction and prison sentence for one of those serious offences. This just isn’t many people. Corrections knew approximately how many people would have a harder time getting bail under the law change because it knew exactly how many people it would have effected the year before the change, and the year before that. Somewhere in the order of 100-200 people facing charges (many of whom were already denied bail, under then-existing laws). That group of say 200 people, 110 of whom were remanded in prison under the then-existing laws, and 90 of whom got bail would become a group where they estimated only 40 would get bail. The change was so minor, that National was running advertising taking credit for parts of the bail law Labour had enacted a decade earlier.

      But apart from those couple of hundred, maybe, whom the law changed the test for bail, for the other 14,000-20,000 people facing serious charges each year the National government’s Bail Amendment Act changed absolutely nothing. The legal test for bail stayed the same.

      But then the remand population skyrocketed. 1600 were in prison on remand just before it passed. 1800 a year later. 2200 the year after that. Then 2700. Then 3000. Then Labour got elected, and it stayed at that 3000 level over that first year. A year later however, it jumped to 3600. It’s dropped a little from that peak, but it’s still well over 3000. And all while the number of people charged with serious offences has dropped.

      What happened? In some combination of Judges, Police and prosecutors, those involved in the bail process seemed to get the idea that – despite the law not changing for the vast majority of people charged – practices would have to change anyway. Judges seemed less inclined to grant bail, Police more likely to oppose it, and prosecutors more inclined to seek conditions that would delay release. Was it a direct or indirect reaction to Parliament’s actions, or to the Government’s rhetoric? Maybe. But the fact the law had changed in some small way preceded a substantial shift in practice. Someone got the hint that bail should be harder to get, and more and more people ended up serving time in remand prisons.

      This should be on the mind of everyone considering a law change. You need to look not only at the direct effects of what you are proposing, but how they will change the culture and the incentives of those administering the law. It’s one of the major reasons I am concerned with proposals to amend hate speech laws. On their face, the Government’s proposals are relatively minor. In some respects, they would actually legalise some forms of “hate speech” that are currently criminal.

      But what will be the second order effects? Will they change policing culture? For types of speech and conduct that are not actually regulated under the new law, will New Zealand Police, like their British counterparts, take it upon themselves to visit people at work over non-crime hate incidents?

      Because New Zealand policing speech in a manner similar to that in the United Kingdom is what opponents of this law change fear.

      Maybe New Zealand will chart its own course. We have before. About a decade ago, there was a concerted campaign in the United Kingdom to repeal an offence around insulting language. Police had used the existence of the offence to arrest someone who asked a mounted police officer “Do you realise your horse is gay” and to arrest a 16-year-old for holding up a placard which said “Scientology is a dangerous cult”. The criminal law should not be involved in such matters.

      What was the offence?

      As it was at the time, it was worded:

      (1) A person is guilty of an offence if he—

      (a) uses threatening, abusive or insulting words …, or

      (b) displays any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting,

      within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby.

      The maximum penalty was a fine of £1,000.

      You can see how an offence like this could be misused by Police. New Zealand mostly seems to avoided this sort of problem. New Zealand’s law has been inappropriately used by Police: a related law got Tiki Taane arrested for singing N.W.A’s “Fuck the Police”, but we just haven’t seen the ridiculous cases they have seen the UK. Given this difference, it is interesting to compare this New Zealand offence:

      (1) Every person is liable to a fine not exceeding $1,000 who,—

      (b) in any public place, addresses any words to any person intending to threaten, alarm, insult, or offend that person;…”:

      The two laws cover basically the same ground. New Zealand’s law would not cover placards, but other than that the English law is perhaps more free-speech sensitive.

      What words were banned in England? Threatening, abusive or insulting words.

      And in New Zealand? “Any words”.

      What intention or effect was required? In New Zealand: intent to threaten, alarm, insult, or offend the person addressed by the words.

      In England? The words had to be likely to threaten, alarm, insult, or offend.

      Yet enforcement in New Zealand differs greatly. In part, this is because the New Zealand Supreme Court has held that to come within this offence, the speech must be such as the create a risk to public order. But it is also that the Police and the Court don’t generally see themselves as being involved in policing the sort of speech that English police do.

      Because here’s the thing: the law changes we’re looking at aren’t the one people should fear. There’s a bit of debate, but on balance, it may even move New Zealand’s laws in a pro-free speech direction. What matters is the culture. And the culture of New Zealand Police has been more speech friendly that that of their colleagues in England. What is primarily to be feared isn’t charges under the new law, but a change in approach to speech applying pre-existing laws.

      England has a hate speech law somewhat like our current one. with a few differences (eg it uses the “stir up” language the Government proposes to move toward), but few (if any) of over-reaching ridiculous UK prosecutions or arrests you’ve heard about in news stories are actually hate speech prosecutions. Police in England have prosecuted people for posting rap lyrics on Instagram, for posting a video on YouTube of a dog giving a nazi salute, and an evangelist for displaying a large sign saying “Jesus Gives Peace, Jesus is Alive, Stop Immorality, Stop Homosexuality, Stop Lesbianism, Jesus is Lord". None of these were hate speech prosecutions under the type of incitement law the Government is consulting on. These were prosecutions under standard offensive language laws, or communications laws like we have in New Zealand. Actual hate speech prosecutions, of the stirring up hatred kind, have tended to be of so-called hate preachers, like Abu Hamza, or people like this guy.

      The major difference in New Zealand, is that our Police mostly don’t react that way. Of course, the UK wasn’t always this way. At some point, police started acting differently, and directors of public prosecutions started acting differently, and everyone started more rigorously applying those laws, and then magistrates started convicting people. And the laws they were applying had not actually changed. Just like the bail laws had not changed for literally 99% of the people facing serious charges in New Zealand courts.

      But remand rates still doubled.


      Steelmanning hate speech reform

      I am generally sceptical of laws regulating speech, especially those that impose criminal penalties, the consequences can be perverse, and can sometimes even make things worse for those whom they seek to protect. But I try not to allow my reflexive scepticism to be reflexive opposition, and it can sometimes be helpful therefore, to explore the argument for change.

      If you are someone supportive of the idea that the marketplace of ideas is the best means to root out offensive ideas, that the best response to bad speech is good speech and more speech, there is even something here for you. Hate speech can create an environment in which speech from minorities – speech that ought to be welcomed by the marketplace of ideas – becomes less likely. The fear of abuse, of threats or harassment, but even just highly unpleasant response, can discourage speech. Could banning speech that engenders such hatred – speech that silences voices, speech that attacks the marketplace of ideas that opponents of hate speech regulation are trying to protect – actually reinforce that marketplace, by allowing those who may otherwise have been marginalised to join the conversation?

      That is one of the reasons for, and benefits of, laws against defamation. Defamation interferes with the free exchange of ideas. Defaming opponents in the marketplace of ideas can be a means to silence them: "don’t listen to him, he’s a liar", or “she’s a fraud, and lying about her qualifications". Why wouldn’t we want to seek the same regulation of the hate speech that can silence others?

      Hate speech properly understood is bad. That “properly understood” is doing a lot of work, but I hope I can get some agreement that there are some types of speech that diminish social cohesion in profoundly negative ways, and without any societal benefit.

      An example we might like to consider is the preacher here. You can express even very firm religious doctrine against same-sex marriage without using the word ‘bullet’. This isn’t a case where the bad done by expression outweighs the good, it is that there is no good in the expression at all (*there might still be bad done by banning it, but we’ll address that later). As a principle, there is some expression the existence of which is an unalloyed bad.

      We ban all sorts of speech, for all sorts of reasons. Some of those bans involve criminal laws: we ban death threats, and fraud, and conspiracies to import drugs; others are regulated through civil processes, such as claims in defamation and privacy, and obscure torts like interference with contractual relations.

      Which isn’t to say that that speech should necessarily be regulated (much less criminalised), but as a general proposition, I hope this can be accepted: society would be better off if some particularly bad speech happened less or not at all.

      For hate speech specifically, the concern is about speech that dehumanises others, that encourages others to view other groups as less human. At its highest, it is speech that, when repeated often enough, by the wrong people, in the wrong way, makes genocide more likely, encourages terrorism, and makes random attacks and abuse more likely. If there are groups of people felt to be deserving of scorn, of contempt, and of hatred, by enough people, then some people (perhaps just a small minority) may act on that hatred: yelling epithets in the street, engaging in acts of vandalism to homes, businesses, places of worship or graves, or harassment and idle and not-so-idle threats.

      This is detrimental to social cohesion. People who live in a place like New Zealand should not be made to feel that they do not belong, should not be made to fear that taking part in public life will lead to threats and should not have to fundamentally change their lives to avoid attempts at victimisation. And hate speech can make this happen. I gave an example last year:

      A Muslim mother wishes to take her children to the beach on hot summer day. Her beliefs dictate that she should be modestly dressed in public, but she still wants to swim with her kids, so wears a burkini. At the beach, she’s verbally accosted by someone yelling “Go Back to Islam”, and other derogatory comments indicating she doesn’t belong in New Zealand. Now, maybe this is the type of speech we have to live with in a pluralistic society. But we shouldn’t pretend there is no harm. Her kids have heard it. Maybe they were worried for her safety, in the same way that some who hears a threat may fear for someone’s safety. Maybe they’re now scared to go to the beach, in case that bad man (or someone like him) is there.

      Speech which causes someone to change their public life – not going to the beach because their kids are scared of being accosted; or deciding to drive to the supermarket instead of walking because someone on the direct route yells out the n-word or the (other) f-word every time they walk past – is harmful. And it is a harm that might be justifiably regulated.

      The hate speech reforms, however, do not directly deal with this. Abusive speech is covered, but only to the extent that it encourages group hatred. These things can potentially be charged under general criminal laws, but amendments to make such things easier to prosecute under either harassment laws, or as intimidation isn’t part of this proposal.

      Rather, the law is aimed at reducing the environment in which people can feel comfortable engaging in such behaviour. If people are encouraged to hate others, the theory is, these sorts of problems become more likely. If the environment of hate leads to environment of abuse, and threats, the marketplace of ideas falls down.

      There’s an argument against hate speech regulation, which takes pretty much the same line. Adopting laws against hate speech – even narrowly targeted, may in fact increase abuse. That marginalised groups may get the blame for laws against hate speech, that prosecution of hate speech offences may provide platforms for speech that might otherwise fall into obscurity, and create sympathy for those speakers, rather than contempt.

      Unfortunately, this is where my attempts to steelman hate speech laws falls down a little. I can point to countries that have tightly targeted hate speech laws, whom we might learn from in drafting any amendments here, but I simply cannot tell you whether any of them have actually worked. The arguments above are all theory. Common sense theory in lots of places, and in many respects backed by evidence of the harms of hate speech, but evidence that hate speech regulation has had positive effects, actually reducing hate crimes and abuse is something I haven’t seen.

      But then, we regulate all sorts of things we accept are bad, without necessarily being sure that the second order consequences of the ban will see a reduction in other bad things. We criminalise threats without being sure that violence decreases when threats are prosecuted, because threats are so bad, and have such negative consequences on the victims of threats, that the imposition of criminal consequences is felt justified. This goes for a lot of the crimes we have where words form the basis of the charge.

      Maybe some hate speech is so bad, that criminalising it on its own, even without being sure of other benefits is justified. A properly targeted hate speech law, narrowly tailored to the worst most dehumanising hate speech, could be justifiable irrespective of the second order consequences.

      The report of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the terrorist attack on Christchurch masjidain, notes considerations favouring the creation of hate speech offences include:

      the promotion of social cohesion;

      the desirability of limiting speech that encourages hostility that may result in harms such as discrimination and abuse, fears of physical harm and actual violence;

      It notes that these need to be weighed against consideration of:

      the importance of freedom of expression; and

      ensuring that the law can practically be enforced.

      In a related paper, The Royal Commission also considered the adverse consequences of hate speech:

      Adverse consequences and victims of hate speech

      14 In deciding whether hate speech offences are a reasonable limit on the right to freedom of expression, the adverse consequences of hate speech are relevant.

      15 We were provided with a draft Ministry of Justice document that sets out the evidence base it has established during its review of hate speech legislation. That document lists the impacts of hate speech as including:

      a) Psychological harm of hate speech – It has been claimed that hate speech causes psychological harm to individuals, and that its presence in society reinforces the racist status quo. This is consistent with findings that suggest individuals subjected to non-physical discrimination suffer harm to their physical and mental health.

      b) Impact of hate speech on human dignity and public goods such as inclusive society – Jeremy Waldron argues that hate speech should be regulated as part of our commitment to human dignity, inclusion and respect for members of marginalised communities. Denigration of a marginalised community through hate speech undermines a public good that can and should be protected – the basic assurance of inclusion in society for all members.

      c) Impact of hate speech on behaviour of affected people – Some commentators have argued that hate speech causes those who are subject to hatred to retract from society and remain as silent and invisible as possible.

      d) Impact of hate speech on New Zealanders generally – A Netsafe survey conducted in 2018 on the impact of online hate speech found that one in ten adults have been personally targeted by online hate speech. Of those targeted, about 60 percent reported a negative impact from the experience. Most reported being affected emotionally but also exhibiting changes in their behaviour. A third of those targeted reported not being affected. Descriptions of emotional impact included anger, sadness, fear and frustration. For some, online hate also affected their social interactions, sleep and/or work.

      e) The link between hate speech on the internet and hate crimes – A study commissioned by InternetNZ concluded that the case for the link between hate speech on the internet and hate crimes has been well made, however more research is needed to understand the details.

      Maybe that is enough?

      The case against hate speech reform will follow in a later post, but I will note one point here.

      The types of hate speech that most impact on individuals’ access to the marketplace of idea – the emailed death wishes, and implied threats, the street abuse and harassment that may cause people to alter their lives, to not take their kids to the beach, and to try to avoid becoming public figures speaking on issues of importance for fear of their lives become measurably worse through personal attacks  that personalised targeted hate speech with identifiable victims?

      This proposal doesn’t deal with it at all.

      The hate speech reforms are instead designed to stop the creation of an environment where these things can occur, but appear to assume that the laws that deal with these things directly are adequate. I have no idea why.


      The Government's Proposed Decriminalisation of Racist Hate Speech

      In what will hopefully be the first of the number of posts on the government’s hate speech proposals, I have a look at what they actually cover. You may have guessed from the title of this piece that there is some confusion. Certainly, the government is still working through the details, with a public consultation process having just started. But some aspects of the proposal have been under-explained, so here’s a Q&A to kick things off. 

      What’s this about hate speech?

      The New Zealand Government has released has public discussion document around proposals to reform the two hate speech provisions in the Human Rights Act. The proposals have been well-signalled, with the Report of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the terrorist attack on Christchurch masjidain containing some of the discussion around changes that it thought should be made.

      Before we get to the changes, what are the current laws?

      New Zealand has a number of general laws that can be used to prosecute what is sometimes called hate speech, including laws against disorderly and offensive conduct language, against harmful digital communications, and for particularly serious speech, censorship legislation.

      This proposal doesn’t alter these laws. It addresses two laws in the Human Rights Act 1993: one a criminal offence and the other a civil claim (like defamation).

      Tell me about the current criminal law.

      Section 131 of the Human Rights Act creates a criminal offence if you do some combination of the following five things:

      • publish written material, or use words in a public place (you need one of these)
      • if those words are threatening, abusive or insulting (you need one of these)
      • And those words that are likely to
        • excite hostility; or
        • or excite ill-will against; or
        • or bring into contempt; or
        • or bring into ridicule
          (and one of these)
      • And that excitation or bringing is against a group of persons in New Zealand on the ground of their colour, or race, or ethnic or national origins (and one of these).
      • And you intend those words to excite hostility; or to excite ill-will against; or bring into contempt; or bring into ridicule such a group of person (and one of these).

      Do one option from each of these things above, and you have committed an offence for which Police can prosecute you. If convicted you can be imprisoned for up to three months, or fined up to $7000. No-one has ever been prosecuted for this in New Zealand, although there was one prosecution under the similar offence under the law that the Human Rights Act replaced.

      Importantly, this offence covers speech about groups. Speech directed at individuals mostly isn't covered by this law, nor by the proposals for change. If you are looking for legislation to deal with things like racist or otherwise bigoted street harassment, this is not it.

      And the Government is looking at expanding this criminal offence?

      No. Also yes, but mostly no. The Government is proposing to decriminalise most of this speech. Under the Government’s proposal, what replaced this criminal offence would not make it criminal to excite hostility against say a race using threatening, abusing or insulting words, it it would not be criminal to excite ill-will against them, nor to bring them into contempt, nor to bring them into ridicule.

      It would only be criminal to publish written material or use words to stir up hatred against them. Both the Royal Commission and the Government consider this is less restrictive on freedom of expression. I am inclined to agree. The Royal Commission saw the current prohibitions as unjustified, and considered that criminalising only a small subset of especially harmful speech, likely to engender hatred, was justifiable, but they think the harm caused by that type of speech is worse than the law currently recognises.

      Is that the only change planned to the criminal offence?

      No, there is some proposed expansion of the law, so as well as increasing the standard to hatred, rather than lesser things like ridicule, and changing the verb from excite (which the Royal Commission noted is somewhat archaic) to “stir up or maintain”, the Government is looking at moving the crime to the Crimes Act and increasing the penalty to three years imprisonment (both to recognise its seriousness), and this is the big change: bringing in other protected grounds (like religion, sex and gender, and possibly all of the other grounds of discrimination in the Human Rights Act).

      Is including other grounds of discriminatin what opponents are concerned about?

      I think so. There are other concerns, about enforcement, about clarity, and about possible changes in culture, but if we're talking about opposition to the proposed legislative change, most of it has focused on that final bit: extending the protections of hate speech to other classes like religion, and gender expression.

      The proposed extension of the criminal offence (and the civil process to other grounds of discrimination) has some opponents worried that political or religious criticism may become fraught (would the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons be illegal; would Israel Folau’s Facebook paraphrase of Paul’s letter to the Galations?), or that people may be arrested and charged for relatively minor offence (eg misgendering). They’re aware of some things that have happened in other countries, primarily the United Kingdom, such as the 16-year-old who was arrested (but not charged) for having a placard that said “Scientology is a dangerous cult”). They don’t want to risk that happen here.

      Does the proposed law cover that?

      I don’t think so, but I’d be more confident in that conclusion if the Government was clearer about its intentions. The Government seems very open to the idea– despite what the Royal Commission said about reducing what is actually prohibited – that things like these might be prohibited. When recently interviewed by Tova O’Brien on The Nation, the Minister of Justice was reluctant to comment on a range of hypotheticals. The Government should be answering questions like this.

      What about the other changes being looked at?

      The proposal suggests that the current process for civil liability should have similar changes – although it is possible that civil liability would remain for not only hatred-engendering speech, but also lesser things like incitement to ridicule or contempt.

      They would also extend the provisions around civil liability to include incitement to discriminate. Discrimination is already illegal (people can be sued for discriminating against others), this proposal would extend civil liability to those who encourage such discrimination.

      The Government has also announced its intention to clarify the grounds of discrimination to include trans, gender diverse and intersex people (it is generally agreed that they are already protected under the prohibition against sex discrimination, but this would make it explicit).

      The proposal would also make the the laws technologically neutral, as it is not clear, for example, that online publications are currently covered.

      What next?

      The Ministry of Justice has commenced a public engagement process on the Proposals against incitement of hatred and discrimination. Members of the public can have their say until Friday 6 August 2021.

      And that covers the change you talk about above?

      Yes. And some of the detail too, although this is pre-legislation consultation, so we aren't being consulted on a bill, like we would at a select committee. That will come later.

      You can engage with the consultation process here.

      What concerns remain? Why would someone oppose this law?

      I'm still not convinced, and I hope to cover this in more details in future posts, but a big reason to oppose a change like this is the same reason to oppose any expansion of the criminal law. Imprisoning people is really harmful. Convicting people is really harmful. Prosecuting them is harmful. Being arrested, and even just being visited by police is harmful. If you are a person sympathetic toward the prison abolition movement, there are major red flags here. There are also all of the standard concerns about the focus of police discretion. Will those charged under this law be disproportionately brown, or  poor, like with most other laws?

      The most obvious concern is that the Government has not been clear about what it thinks the law will actually ban, and worryingly the Minister of Justice doesn’t seem to think he has a role in deciding what types of things this law would make illegal, nor more importantly, what types of things it would not make illegal.

      In particular, the Government doesn’t appear to understand, and has never seemed to articulate what I described above – that its proposal as currently articulated (and as explained by the Royal Commission) decriminalises a bunch of currently criminal speech. It knows it is extending protections to cover other grounds of discrimination, but hasn’t grasped its proposal would move regulation of some sorts of hate speech that are currently prosecutable, to civil proceedings. And if the Government doesn’t realise this, and if the Government will not answer hypotheticals like those Tova O’Brien put to the Minister of Justice, people are right to be concerned.

      There are some other issues to be considered too, but are perhaps more in the details.

      One example from the discussion document is that it notes that “This proposal does not include the requirement that the communication must be “likely to” incite, maintain or normalise hatred. This exists in the both section 61 and 131 currently (and is not proposed to be removed from section 61). The Royal Commission did not think it was a necessary element of a new offence.”

      The Ministry of Justice says it is interested in feedback on this, but the rationale for imposing criminal liability on someone based on the harm they are doing, should probably be connected to the harm they are doing. If someone's speech is not likely to incite, maintain or normalise hatred, can there be a justification for punishing them for inciting, maintaining or normalising hatred?

      We'll get into the weeds later, but you can have your say here.