That is, at both ends of the argument
Dr Muriel Newman
Sir Salman Rushdie understands the importance of free speech more than most.
In 1988, the British writer was accused of insulting Islam in his fourth novel, The Satanic Verses. A year later a fatwa calling for his death – and others involved in the publication – was issued by Iran’s Supreme Leader, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Salman Rushdie was put under police protection and went into hiding.
Two years later, the book’s Japanese translator was stabbed to death, and the Italian and Norwegian translators were seriously injured.
Over the years, there have been bombings, more killings, and mass protests.
Just last year, the Iranian state media placed a US$600,000 bounty on his head – in addition to the US$3 million offered for his assassination in the original fatwa.
In an interview in 2012, Salman Rushdie said, “There is no right in the world not to be offended. That right simply doesn’t exist. In a free society, an open society, people have strong opinions, and these opinions very often clash. In a democracy, we have to learn to deal with this.”
The Human Rights Commission should take heed, and call off the Race Relations Commissioner’s continuing attack on free speech in New Zealand. In this, her final year in office, Dame Susan Devoy is clearly trying to create a legacy for herself by targeting hate speech. She wants to strengthen the Commission’s powers so that there can be more prosecutions for ‘insults’ and ‘threats’, and she is pushing the Police ‘to gather hate crime statistics’.
Police Commissioner Mike Bush, who says that reports of hate crimes around the country are mostly anecdotal, has confirmed that Police are working with the Human Rights Commission on whether a specific hate crime offence should be written into the law:
“We have crime categories at the moment … that do apply, but we are just working through the pros and cons of whether or not it would be the right thing.”
However, a recent incident, that would no doubt have been categorised as a hate crime shows why this approach is so misguided.
The confrontation in question, occurred in Huntley last month, when a drunken woman hurled abuse and a beer can at a group of Muslim women who had stopped at the public toilets.
One of the group, Mehpara Khan, filmed the event on her cell phone and posted it on Twitter. It was picked up by mainstream media and widely reported in the news.
Because of complaints filed with the Police, 27-year-old Megan Walton was arrested. She pleaded guilty to three charges – assault, assault using a can of alcohol as a weapon, and behaving in an insulting manner likely to cause violence.
The problem for those wanting to use this incident in their push for stronger hate crime laws, is that Megan Walton does not fit their stereotype. Megan is not anti-Muslim; in fact, her mother is Muslim and her behaviour that day was exacerbated by her bipolar disorder.
Megan is mortified by her behaviour: “I’m really sorry that she got treated like that. It’s disgusting and I’m sorry. But that isn’t who I am. I just need someone to help. I’ve been asking for help for ages and I’m too embarrassed now.”
Megan’s family have been trying to get her help too. They feel the mental health system has let them down.
Victim forgives offender
Meanwhile, Ms Khan, who released the video to the world, says Ms Walton is ‘forgiven’ and she hopes she receives all the help and support she needs.
This incident not only shows the danger of trying to pigeonhole so-called hate crime, but it also demonstrates that the law as it now stands is quite adequate.
Current legislation protects people from any form of violence – bullying, assaults, threats, insults, intimidation, harassment, defamation, slander, libel and other such harmful practices.
Online laws have also been tightened, making it an offence to post harmful digital communications – including private messages and publicly shared posts – with a penalty of up to two years’ imprisonment or a fine of up to $50,000.
In addition, while Clause 14 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act protects our right to free speech: “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, including the freedom to seek, receive and impart information and opinions of any kind and in any form” – the Human Rights Act makes ‘hate speech’ an offence. Sections 61 and 131 criminalise opinions that could be deemed ‘threatening, abusive, or insulting’ on the grounds of ‘colour, race, ethnic or national origins’ that could create racial disharmony. The penalty is imprisonment for up to 3 months or a fine of up to $7000.
On top of that, the Sentencing Act specifically protects ‘groups’ from any hostility through Section 9, which outlines the aggravating factors that could contribute towards longer sentences – including if “the offender committed the offence partly or wholly because of hostility towards a group of persons who have an enduring common characteristic such as race, colour, nationality, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, or disability”.
In response to the calls for tougher laws, Justice Minister Amy Adams said that she does not believe that new hate crime legislation is warranted.
“My take on it is we have a very low level of that sort of behaviour in New Zealand. And when it does come up, I have not seen any indication that our offence framework fails to deal with it,” she said.
Police Minister Paula Bennett agreed.
She said, “I do not see the need for specific hate crime legislation at the moment. It’s not something that’s on our agenda.”
In reality, Dame Susan is going too far with her call for stronger laws in this area. In fact, any attempt to strengthen the laws around hate speech would be highly subjective and open to abuse – especially by those wanting to close debates to deny those with a contrary view their right to free speech.
As it stands, the current laws already give the Human Rights Commission too much power – as was evident in 2014, when they began monitoring the media to ‘name and shame’ those publishing viewpoints they considered to be negative to Maori.
While the Commission claimed that keeping an on-going tally of such negative reporting around the country would not stifle media freedom – “Our aim is not to limit media freedom, we want to start an open conversation about balance, fairness, social responsibility and quality in reporting” – in reality they imposed a culture of censorship, that was designed to silence anyone criticising their radical separatist agenda.
The freedom of speech is at the very core of a democratic society, and attempts by a State agency to undermine balance in the media and in online debates, especially about issues as contentious as race relations, amount to abuse of power.
The above is the edited version of the views expressed by Dr Muriel Newman, Director of the New Zealand Centre for Political Research, in her web-based free weekly Newsletter, NZCPR Weekly. For full text, visit www.nzcpr.com