Fine for burqa remarks questioned

Farm worker Yuet Rappard should not have been fined for telling a foreign student to remove her burqa, Otago University religious freedom professor Rex Ahdar says.

And free speech professor Andrew Geddis said Rappard's view was valid and a Supreme Court ruling allowed people to cause offence, and upset others, to maintain the freedom of speech.

Rappard was found guilty of offensive behaviour and fined $500 on Wednesday for telling a student on May 17 in a Dunedin supermarket to remove her burqa or leave New Zealand.

Prof Ahdar said Rappard should not have been fined.

''Only in the most exceptional circumstances would I have criminal liability for speech and this isn't one of them.''

The inciting of a riot, or threatening to kill, was worthy of criminal liability but insulting somebody was not, he said.

''Only in rare circumstances, I would impose criminal liability for speech and not for your everyday insult.''

Prof Geddis said Rappard was fined because if a person behaved in an offensive way in public they had committed an offence. If a ''reasonable person'' found the behaviour offensive, then they were fined.

However, the Supreme Court had ruled that people could cause an offence and upset other people so free speech meant something.

''Because if you can't offend people with your speech, well then you don't really have a right to free speech at all - you can only say things that everyone agrees with and there is not much point to that.''

For something to be deemed offensive, it had to create a risk to public order, he said.

''It's not enough to cause people to be upset inside themselves; you have to have some impact on the public sphere.''

The law then needed to decide if the public should have been offended by, or tolerated, the behaviour.

However, he believed Rappard had stepped over the line of respect and civility in the Dunedin supermarket.

''In the way she treated the student - not in what she thought - what she thought was a quite valid view. A lot of people think the burqa is a bad symbol. It is how [Rappard] went about it, particularly if she used the words `dirty Muslim'.''

- shawn.mcavinue@odt.co.nz

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