New Zealand beefing up hate speech laws after Christchurch attack

Government says existing laws do not protect a person’s gender identity, sexual orientation, religion or disability.

New Zealand’s government announced on Friday that it plans to strengthen the country’s hate speech laws, and increase penalties for inciting hatred and discrimination, in response to the attack by a white supremacist in Christchurch two years ago that killed 51 Muslims.

The move comes after a Royal Commission of Inquiry into the March 15, 2019 attack recommended changes to hate speech and hate crime laws, which it said were weak deterrents for people targeting religious and other minority groups.

New Zealand’s hate speech laws have resulted in just one prosecution and two civil claims so far, the Royal Commission noted.

“Protecting our right to freedom of expression while balancing that right with protections against ‘hate speech’ is something that requires careful consideration and a wide range of input,” Justice Minister Kris Faafoi said at a news conference.

“Building social cohesion, inclusion and valuing diversity can also be a powerful means of countering the actions of those who seek to spread or entrench discrimination and hatred.”

The government proposed new criminal offences for hate speech that it said would be clearer and more effective.

Under the proposal, a person who “intentionally stirs up, maintains or normalises hatred” would break the law if they did so by being threatening, abusive or insulting, including by inciting violence, the government said.

Punishment for such offences would be increased to a maximum of three years in prison or a fine of up to 50,000 New Zealand dollars ($35,000). Currently, the punishment is up to 7,000 New Zealand dollars ($4,950) or three months in jail.

It also proposed provisions that would protect trans, gender diverse and intersex people from discrimination. Current laws only target speech that “excite hostility” against a person or group on the grounds of their colour, race or ethnicity.

‘Question on free speech’

The proposals are now open for public consultation.

According to Radio New Zealand, the government is also considering changing the language and widening the incitement provisions in the Human Rights Act.

The attack by a white supremacist in Christchurch in 2019 left at least 51 Muslim worshippers dead [Mark Baker/AP]

But it has not yet been decided which groups will be added. 

At present, the only act considered as an offence is the use of speech that will “excite hostility” or “bring into contempt” a person or group on the grounds of their colour, race or ethnicity. But gender identity, sexual orientation, religion or disability are not considered protected.

Australian Brenton Tarrant killed 51 people and injured dozens when he opened fire on Muslim worshippers in two mosques in Christchurch, streaming the atrocity live on Facebook shortly after releasing a racist manifesto online,

With support across the political spectrum, New Zealand swiftly banned the sale of the high-capacity semi-automatic weapons Tarrant used.

In August 2020, a judge sentenced Tarrant to life imprisonment without parole, the first time a New Zealand court had handed down such a sentence.

But changes to hate speech laws have been more contentious as some political parties said it would impede free speech.

“The government’s proposed hate speech laws are a huge win for cancel culture and will create an even more divided society,” New Zealand’s smaller ACT Party leader David Seymour said in a statement.


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