IN COMMITTEE In a Manner of Speaking

Matthew Shepard was young man who was beaten to death several years ago in an American gay-bashing case which became cause celebre at the time. Today his name is remembered however, not because of those who gave him posthumous support, but because of US website sponsored by the religious right that features picture of him engulfed in animated flames and caption tracking the number of days he has allegedly been burning in hell. It gets worse, but that should be enough to give you the picture.
As in the US, there appears to be nothing in New Zealand law that would prevent such material being created and displayed here at the present time; whereas countries like Germany have already passed vigorous anti-hate speech legislation. The question of whether or not we should do likewise has been exercising the minds of the members of the Government Administration Select Committee who announced last month that they were intending to conduct an inquiry into the question of hate speech.
The terms of reference include: whether or not new legislation is warranted whether censorship could be justified under the Bill of Rights Act 1990, an appropriate threshold at which such restraint might apply, whether prohibition would be justified limitation on the rights and freedoms of New Zealanders, and finally, the steps taken to control hate speech elsewhere.
Currently the Human Rights Act 1993 deals with inciting racial disharmony. What is being considered is whether the same provision should cover the incitement of hatred against people on the grounds of their religion, gender or sexual orientation. Predictably perhaps, the first person to have his say after the inquiry was announced was Justice Minister Phil Goff who welcomed the “bipartisan initiative” before giving his own thoughts on the matter and, in doing so, seeking to frame the debate.
“Parliament’s responsibility is to balance freedom of speech as fundamental right in democratic society with the protection of individuals from direct harm which may be the consequence of inciting hatred against them,” he said. “The point of the inquiry cannot be to stop expression of hateful opinion, even if we utterly reject that opinion. It is when expression of that opinion risks leading directly to harm towards the group against which it is directed that the law has role to play.”
There will be those who feel that Goff’s definition of what should be outlawed does not go far enough and that all expressions of hate should be banned, regardless of whether or not they can be shown to cause direct harm. On the other hand, others will argue that speech should be unfettered, even when there is danger that harm could result. That is the position that has more-or-less carried the day in the US, permitting sites like the one featuring the ill-fated Matthew Shepard to operate with impunity.
If you have view on the question of hate speech, you can make written submission to the clerk of the Government Administration Select Committee (20 copies) and, if you wish, appear before the members in person. Written submissions close Friday October 1, 2004.

Julie Collier is editor and publisher of Select Committee News.

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