I am among the most pro-free speech people I know. I don’t doubt there are others more strident than me, but I’m certainly up there. And my support for freedom of expression isn’t limited to opposition to government-imposed restrictions. It extends to a belief that employers should have limited powers over their employees non-employment-related speech (I was firmly of the view that, had Israel Folau’s controversial facebook comments been subject to New Zealand employment and non-discrimination law, they would have been protected, and if it turned out they weren’t protected, the law should be changed so they were), and to a preference for companies that form part of the infrastructure of the Internet to avoid content-based restrictions (I oppose campaigns to get companies to refuse to provide services to unpopular people and groups – Stuff.co.nz should be able to decide what comments it publishes, but the company who leases them server space, and the companies that carry their content to you over the Internet, shouldn’t consider it their function to play a part – if certain types of content should be banned, decisions should be taken by governments with approval or oversight from independent courts, not corporations).
My support for freedom of expression seems to come from a slightly different place than it does for most of people who are prominent in New Zealand in their advocate of free speech: I’m not sure I actually agree that free speech enables the marketplace of ideas, that good ideas will beat out bad ones by force of argument, but I generally oppose laws limiting speech anyway, because of a belief that the imposition of criminal consequences is often more harmful than the harms we might seek to prevent by passing criminal laws.
Not only is convicting someone harmful, but prosecuting someone is harmful. Arresting someone is harmful. Arguing that we need to pass a criminalising some conduct to “send a message” is good way to ensure I will reflexively oppose it. We should pass criminal laws because we consider that the conduct engaged in can be so bad, that when people engage in it we are willing to say to their children: you can’t have your parent around for a while, and your life should be made meaningfully worse in a way which increases your risk to society. Some conduct is that bad, but it’s a damn high test.
Even just prosecuting someone, without a sentence of imprisonment, or even without a conviction can have some of these consequences (arguments around why we shouldn’t impose the costs of prosecution on the victims of it are for another day).
But even starting from this point, I am not yet reflexively opposed to all regulation of hate speech. There’s a pretty good chance that I may oppose a particular proposal – and I don’t know what the government’s review is likely to recommend – but the idea that there could be some law change to recognise the harm caused by hate speech does not meet immediate opposition from me.
Of course, future hate speech laws need not be criminal. Much of the general public understanding of the regulation of hate speech comes from high-ish profile examples from the United Kingdom, where criminal law has been the predominant tool. This is not the only option. Defamation law limits speech, but does not impose criminal penalties. It is easy to imagine a law being enacted where hate speech was subject to civil damages, not fines or imprisonment. In fact, that is already the law in New Zealand. There are at least two “hate speech” provisions in the Human Rights Act: (1) a criminal offence around publishing threatening, abusive, or insulting material, with the intention of exciting hostility or ill-will against, or bringing into contempt or ridicule, any group of persons in New Zealand on the ground of the colour, race, or ethnic or national origins; and also (2) a civil prohibition on publishing such words where they are likely to have that effect (this is an objective test, so the effect need not be intended, which is required for the criminal offence). The criminal offence is punishable by conviction and a fine of up to $7000, or up to 3 months’ imprisonment. The civil prohibition is enforced by someone suing in the Human Rights Review Tribunal, for civil damages. Given that the victim of the publication would be a group, and the person making the claim likely an individual, it’s somewhat odd, but any damages would appear to be paid to the claimant.
This civil process was most recently used by Labour MP Louisa Wall, who sued Fairfax, the Marlborough Express and the Christchurch Press over the publication of two editorial cartoons by Al Nisbet found to be insulting to Māori and objectively offensive. The case, and an appeal from it, ultimately failed on the basis that the publication of the cartoons was not likely to excite hostility toward Māori. But they are useful to showing what laws we currently have, and that a criminal offence is not the only option.
In a sense, these sorts of laws are (or at least can be) similar to defamation, and privacy: different civil proceedings dealing with rather abstract concepts. Defamation laws protect against attacks on character or reputation, privacy laws against invasion of privacy, with these sorts of hate speech laws (there are others) protecting against attacks on dignity. It is easy to imagine new laws which might provide for further protection against embarrassment or harm to feelings.
Of course, the protection the law provides against attacks to character, and breaches of privacy is much greater than it currently provides to hate speech said to undermine dignity, but It is not clear to me why a person’s reputation is so much more worthy of legal protection that their dignity. Of course, one solution I might favour would be to drastically reduce the scope of defamation law.
But I have already said that I am not wholly opposed to all new regulation of hate speech, so the question I ought address is what sort of law might find my favour. It is helpful to consider what sorts of restrictions on freedom of expression there are, and which are justifiable.
When the state proposes to limit a right like freedom of expression, it ought to be able to point to a compelling government interest. Often, this is easy: the interest in prohibiting criminal activity is a compelling reason to make conspiracy to commit a crime illegal, especially where the crime is serious: getting together with others, and forming a common intention (through words alone) to murder someone, or to import methamphetamine, is illegal, even though the offending hasn’t even reached a stage of eg attempted murder.
Other times it is harder: our current defamation laws protect reputation even in the absence of other loss, and even in circumstances where publication has not in fact been shown to have diminished a person’s reputation. I don’t think they get the balance right, but know that others do.
Back on the clearly justified side: people shouldn’t feel threatened, so laws against threats, and against stalking are justified.
This last example is helpful in a discussion around hate speech. A part of the problem of stalking is the sense of unease it creates, and the fear and worry it can induce in people. It can have real limit on a person’s ability to live their life. People who have been stalked, like people who have been in situations of domestic violence, can be affected in all facets of their life. Sometimes it could manifest in a fear of being out in public. Other times, it may require a person to limit their profile, for example, not engaging in political advocacy in a way in which they may like to, for fear of being recognised, and re-victimised.
Certain types of hate speech may have a similar effect. Much of this hate speech is already illegal, including death threats, and other threats of violence or of sexual assault. For some other harmful speech, it is less obviously so. Sometimes it can be prosecuted by general laws, but this can be inconsistent. It does not seem necessarily unreasonable that the law would act to ensure that people should are able to go about their lives.
Examples are easy to imagine. 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.
This might well already be illegal. In 2013, a man was convicted for offensive language for crossing the street to tell two men “you've got Aids” and “you're a poofter”. But the same law has also been used to convict someone for saying a war commemoration should commemorate the dead on both sides of the conflict and not just our dead, and a related law was used to arrest Tiki Taane for performing N.W.A.s protest song “Fuck the Police”. As much as there may be victims of hateful speech, there is also a risk there will be victims of hate speech laws.
But even if we reject expanding hate speech laws, we should not ignore the fact that speech which causes someone to change their public life – not going to the beach because their kids are scared of being accosted; or driving 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.
Of course, we can address a lot of this harm without specific hate speech laws. And that may be the preferable approach: for example, instead of a specific hate speech law, you could instead expand the offence of intimidation to more clearly cover off speech which has the effect of diminishing public utility. Or we could expand civil laws – although that too comes with risk (is the threat of bankruptcy, and the lower standard of proof justified?). And, of course, the risks of criminalising hate speech may still be too great, but some of the factors that might mean I am less likely to oppose a proposal around a law designed to address hate speech where that law targets:
- individualised speech, and not generalised speech
- directed speech, and not non-directed speech
- aggressive speech
- speech which provably inhibits a person’s ability to be in public spaces, or participate in public life
When we think of hate speech laws, we tend to think of laws which would deal with general insults, like the law that was used by Louisa Wall to challenge Fairfax, but I think there is an important distinction for example, between a hateful post on your own facebook page, and one that someone has posted on a victim’s own facebook page (or been sent as a message). And wherever you draw the line, a street preacher giving a sermon against homosexuality generally, is not causing as much harm, as a person approaching someone and yelling at them that they have caused AIDS.
What would cause me to oppose a new hate speech law? The fear that such a law would be disproportionately used against poor and brown people, like most public order offences are. And that still might be enough. It is a very real concern that anyone proposing a law in this area need to address. I'm not sure I've really seen anyone attempt it yet.