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Justice Minister Andrew Little, in an article entitled "Time for a just appraisal'' (ODT, April 30), indicates the intention of the Government to consider reviewing the parameters of what currently constitutes "hate speech'' as evidenced in his asking "the Ministry of Justice to work with the Human Rights Commission to examine whether our laws properly balance the issues of freedom of speech and hate speech''.
He outlines our country's tradition of free speech, the applicable legislation and the importance of robust public debate even if some might find comments offensive or disagreeable.
He notes "we already have laws to protect against what we call 'hate speech''', but it is implicit in his comments that he envisages an expansion of this.
What the Justice Minister doesn't mention are the controversial hate speech laws that exist in Europe and the UK, which are extremely broad and have had the effect of silencing legitimate speech. Individuals making relatively benign remarks have been prosecuted under this legislation. A situation surely we would not want to see in New Zealand. Mr Little talks of "a robust public discussion from all quarters'' on these issues.
However, the real danger to meddling in our sound and proven speech laws is that institutions, agencies and interest groups with their own social and political agendas will likely have a disproportionate influence that is not in the national interest. There will be some whose sole intent is to undermine the free speech we already enjoy.
It would not have escaped the attention of the Justice Minister that free speech is already under threat in our country. There have been situations in universities where some speakers have been shut down by groups or individuals unwilling to let them speak.
Last year, Massey University's vice-chancellor, Jan Thomas, prevented Don Brash from speaking on campus allegedly because she had security concerns. It transpired that the real reason was she held a distaste for his views and effectively acted as a censor. Likewise, Auckland Mayor Phil Goff publicly disparaged two Canadian speakers and prevented them from using a council venue.
The Government should be proactive in enhancing and protecting the free speech we already enjoy and ensuring that incidents of this nature are not repeated.
There should be considerable concern about the levels of intolerance displayed by some groups and individuals in New Zealand to existing free speech. It doesn't bode well if politicians see fit to pass further laws that at the very least would be problematic and likely to criminalise even moderate speech based on the European experience.
There is nothing wrong with our current laws. Free speech should be protected and not restricted.
- Joss Miller is a retired Dunedin lawyer.