David Seymour: Now more than ever we must defend free speech

Opinion 08/04/2019

By David Seymour, ACT Party leader.

While politicians and commentators have been consumed by the debate over firearms legislation, the Christchurch terrorist attacks have also drawn the attention of the Government to another issue that could have much deeper implications for all New Zealanders: whether we need new laws to protect people from so-called “hateful” speech that targets particular groups. 

If ever there was a time at which opponents of free speech could persuade a majority of New Zealanders to accept restrictions on what they can legally say, it is now. That is why defenders of freedom of expression must be especially vigilant. 

Justice Minister Andrew Little is right now considering whether New Zealand should create new crimes for having distasteful opinions. We are yet to see the proposals, but the Government could end up policing our speech and telling us which of our words are unacceptable. We are in danger of crossing a bright red line.

In the UK, it is an offence to use “threatening, abusive or insulting words that causes another person harassment, alarm or distress”. 

Earlier this year, a British woman was arrested and thrown in jail after she referred to a transgender woman as a man on Twitter. Kate Scottow had her DNA and fingerprints taken. Police took her phone and laptop and served her with a court order preventing from her referring to her accuser as a man.

A few years earlier, pensioner and World War Two veteran George Staunton put up a UKIP poster and scrawled beside it “Don’t forget the 1945 war” and “Free speech for England”. He was charged with racially aggravated criminal damage.

Some people on the Left argue that “free speech doesn’t include hate speech”. But what does that even mean? Yes, there are limits on speech that have evolved in the common law over time. These can be objectively tested in court. You can’t incite violence. You can’t make a nuisance of yourself by shouting fire when there is no fire. You can’t defame people. “Hate speech”, on the other hand, is just a subjective test that can be used to silence unpopular opinions.

Here are three important questions for those wishing to impose hate speech laws on New Zealanders: 

How is hate speech to be defined? Who gets to define it? And how can we trust those people not to use hate speech laws to suppress ideas they don’t like?

A far-left bureaucrat you’ve never heard will have some say in deciding what hate speech is. Paul Hunt was appointed Chief Human Rights Commissioner in January. 

Just two months earlier he unsuccessfully stood for a position in the UK Labour Party as a Jeremy Corbyn-aligned socialist. A few days ago, he said New Zealand hadn’t “achieved a balance” between free speech and hate speech, that we need a debate about speech and a review of the laws governing speech. Unless we are constantly vigilant about freedom of expression, these are the kinds of people who will define hate speech for us and suppress ideas they don’t like.

But do we actually need hate speech laws?

As quoted by Karl du Fresne in the Listener, AUT Professor Paul Spoonley rejects overseas hate speech laws for New Zealand, citing that we are globally ranked as number one for welcoming immigrants. “I struggle to find another country that we should model ourselves on,” says Spoonley.

We need a New Zealand understanding of the issues and we need a New Zealand response to those issues.

Our society does contain people who harbour prejudice. But laws which criminalise offensive opinions are likely to create resentment and anger rather than cure hate.

Our survival depends on an open culture of ideas and speech. We cannot solve our most pressing problems if we are not able to try new ideas, discard those that don’t work, and look for better ones. We can only do that in an open society in which free thought and open enquiry are encouraged.

David Seymour is leader of the ACT Party.