Withdrawing the “Hate Speech” Amendment

Earlier this week it was announced that the Govenment intended to withdraw the Human Rights (Religous) Amendment Bill. The Bill was designed to deal with what is generally referred to as “hate speech” against religous groups. The issue is now going to be referred to the Law Commission. The terms of reference for the Law Commission have yet to be released but I would imagine that they will be considerably wider than “hate speech” against religous groups.

I made a submission the the Select Committee on the Bill. I thought that I would make it available via this medium, given that I have earlier posted on the subject of “hate speech” and freedom of expression.

The submission follows:

Summary of the Argument

My starting point is that this amendment is problematic and should not proceed in its current form.

In summary I consider that the amendment constitutes an unjustified interference with the freedom of expression guaranteed under the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 (section 14) and the right of a person guaranteed under the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 (section 15) to manifest that person’s religion or belief in worship, observance, practice, or teaching, either individually or in community with others, and either in public or in private.

In addition, I submit that the proposed amendment is unduly discriminatory for it protects those who have a religious belief. It offers no protection for those who do not have such belief but who have an ethical belief. To be consistent, if the Legislature wishes to protect belief systems (whether religious or otherwise) there should be protection for those who subscribe to ethical belief systems.

Thirdly I submit that if there is to be protection for those who practice religious or ethical beliefs, there should be an exception similar to that which appears in section 29J of the Public Order Act 1986 (United Kingdom).

There are also some definitional difficulties. “Religious belief” is not defined whereas in the principal Act ethical belief is clearly defined. My suggestion (which I shall develop in the submission) is that the term “religious belief” should be substituted with “faith based belief”.

The term “harm” is not defined and should be clarified. At the moment the term is too wide and imprecise and could well result in an unjustified limitation on the freedom of expression.


Bill of Rights Act Issues

The starting point for a discussion of this amendment is that it constitutes an interference with the freedom of expression as well as having an impact upon the freedom of religion guaranteed under the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 (NZBORA).

Any interference with the rights guaranteed under NZBORA should be limited to that which is absolutely necessary to protect a group from a clearly defined outcome.

The proposed amendment poses some difficulties insofar as the limitation of these rights is concerned. In a number of respects the two rights are entwined. The religious belief right involves the manifestation or witness of that belief coupled with the practice or teaching of that belief. This necessarily involves communication at which stage the freedom of expression right is engaged.

Because faith-based belief is strongly held, discussions surrounding doctrine or belief systems can become highly contentious and emotive. Care must be taken to ensure that the spirited nature of faith-based debate is not inhibited.

If there is to be a restriction of the NZBORA rights to which I have referred, those restrictions must be clearly expressed. As the proposal in the Bill stands this clarity is absent.

The extent of the restriction of a NZBORA right must be necessary. The following is a test for the scope of such necessity.

The Scope of Necessity

Without the requirement to comply with NZBORA, restrictions on expression could fall within what is referred to as the “harmful tendency test”.

This is based on a vague, general fear that the speech might indirectly contribute to some possible harm at some indefinite future time. This test is quite extensive in its effect and could allow the State to punish speech that contained ideas that it opposed or did not favour. That includes speech that criticized government policies or officials.

The provisions of NZBORA and the fact that a restriction on a right must be necessary demands a higher test. This stricter test is known as the “emergency” test. Under this test the State could punish speech only when it poses an emergency – that is when it directly, demonstrably and imminently causes certain specific, objectively ascertainable serious harms that cannot be averted other than by censorship. This would fulfil the necessity requirement for an abrogation of a NZBORA right.

The issue then is whether the language of the amendment falls with the emergency principle or whether it is more oriented towards a harmful tendency model.

I suggest that the language which makes unlawful excite hostility or ill will against or bring into contempt or ridicule a religious group does not contain the necessary element of immediacy of harm that would bring the speech within the “emergency” test and therefore demonstrates that the amendment falls within the “harmful tendency” test.

It is submitted that this is insufficient to warrant an abrogation of the rights under NZBORA guaranteed for section 14 and 15. The insufficiency of language is further demonstrated by a semantic analysis.

The words ‘excite hostility against’ or ‘bring into contempt’ any group (s.61) or threatening, abusive, or insulting and which are likely to ‘excite hostility or ill will against, or bring into contempt or ridicule’ (s.131) are imprecise.

The use of the word “hostility” is a part of this absence of precision. “Hostility” and its close relation “hatred” are powerful words.

The emotion of “hatred” or “hostility” is far deeper and more visceral than that which may be engendered by abusive or insulting speech. Abusive or insulting speech may be rude, uncouth, ill-mannered or offensive. It may prompt a reaction or a response from the person against whom it is directed. But it would be unlikely to be able to go so far as to stir up hostility towards a group of people based on a shared characteristic.

To engender the incitement of hatred or hostility the language used would have to be far stronger. For this reason it is my submission that the language must be such that it stirs up, maintains or normalizes violent hostility against any group of persons in New Zealand on the ground of the colour, race, or ethnic or national origins or religion of that group of persons or that a person says or otherwise publishes or communicates any words or material that explicitly or implicitly calls for or threatens violence or hostile action against such group of persons.

This emphasizes the importance of the speech engendering or threatening violence or hostile action. There must be an immediacy of harm or threat – what is referred to as the “emergency” principle – a clear and present danger arising from the speech.

It eliminates the slippery and emotive concept of hate or hostility and rather emphasizes the importance of characterizing the speech as dangerous. The emphasis is upon hostile speech because hostility is more capable of being resolved into action.

The quality of the published material and what it seeks to achieve is related to the concepts of violence and hostility but removes the qualities of threat, abuse or insult.

The use of those terms in any proposed legislation would water down robust speech to virtually nothing and would go far beyond what is generally understood by “hate” speech. As I have said, language may be offensive, hurtful or insulting without necessarily setting out to stir up hostility or hostile action and robust debate must be encouraged as well as a need for audiences to be robust and resilient themselves.

The “Religion” Problem

Clearly if one were to add religion, threatening, abusive or insulting language about adherents of the Islamic faith would fall within the first limb of the section 61(1) test. But is it necessary that religion be added? And should this be simply because a religious group was targeted in the March 2019 terrorist attack? And if religious groups are to be added, extreme care must be taken not to unnecessarily abrogate the NZBORA rights contained in sections 14 and 15.

The difficulty with including threatening, abusive or insulting language against groups based upon religion means that not only would Islamaphobic “dangerous speech” be caught, but so too would the anti-Christian, anti-West, anti “Crusader” rhetoric of radical Islamic jihadi groups be caught.

Would the remarks by Winston Peters condemning the implementation of strict sharia law in Brunei that would allow the stoning of homosexuals and adulterers be considered speech that insults members of a religion?[1]

A further difficulty with religious-based speech is that often there are doctrinal differences that can lead to strong differences of opinion that are strongly voiced. Often the consequences for doctrinal heresy will be identified as having certain consequences in the afterlife.

Doctrinal disputes, often expressed in strong terms, have been characteristics of religious discourse for centuries. Indeed the history of the development of the freedom of expression and the freedom of the press was often in the context of religious debate and dissent.

It may well be that to add a category of religion or religious groups will have unintended consequences and have the effect of stifling or chilling debate about religious belief.

An example of the difficulty that may arise with restrictions on religious speech may be demonstrated by the statement “God is dead.” This relatively innocuous statement may be insulting or abusive to members of theist groups who would find a fundamental aspect of their belief system challenged.

For some groups such a statement may be an invitation to violence against the speaker.

Yet the same statement could be insulting or abusive to atheists as well simply for the reason that for God to be dead presupposes the existence of God which challenges a fundamental aspect of atheist belief.

A further example may be seen in statements of faith.

The Shema Yisrael provides an example of the potential for faith based disputation.

The Shema is the centrepiece of morning and evening Jewish prayers. It states as follows:

Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Eḥad: “Hear, O Israel: the LORD is our God, the LORD is One.”

A further example could be taken from Islam’s Shahada “”Lā ʾIlāha ʾIllā Allah, Muḥammadun Rasūl Allah” –  “There is no God but God and Muhammad is His Prophet”.

Both statements occupy a number of different levels of meaning.

First, to the devout Muslim or Jew it is a statement of belief and faith.

Secondly, to the devout Muslim or Jew it is a statement of fact – although that cannot be empirically proven and that qualification alone would challenge a devout Muslim.

Thirdly, it is a challenge to any other belief systems that if they hold that there is any other God but Allah or the LORD (Adonai), their belief is false. To many true believers in other religions that could amount to a serious and aggressive challenge.

Thus it can be seen that in a statement as seemingly innocent as the Shahada and the Shema Yisrael there are layers of meaning that could be considered abusive or insulting yet represent some of the fundamentals of muscular and vigorous religious debate.

These examples illustrate the danger of placing religious discourse into the unlawful categories of discrimination.

If it were to be determined that religious groups would be added to those covered by section 61, stronger wording relating to the consequences of speech should be applicable to such groups. Instead of merely “exciting hostility against” or “bring into contempt” based upon religious differences perhaps the wording should be “advocating and encouraging physical violence against..” .

This would have the effect of being a much stronger test than exists at present under section 61 and recognizes the importance of religious speech and doctrinal dispute.

At the moment the test in the Human Rights Act is the “harmful tendency” test – an approach that is problematical in that there need be no immediacy of danger. This contrasts with the “immediacy” or “emergency” test which requires that the speech carry with it a threat of imminent danger of physical harm and which I have discussed above. This more stringent emergency test would bring the speech within a justifiable limitation of the s. 14 NZBORA guarantee of freedom of expression.

Those who advocate a “harmful tendency” test claim that although there may be no immediacy of harm, nevertheless repetition of the message may elevate the risk. In my view it would have to be proven that mere repetition removes the speech from the “viewpoint neutral harmful tendency” position to that of immediacy of harm.

For all the reasons above, I do not consider that it is necessary for religious groups to be included in sections 61 and 131 of the Human Rights Act.

In the event that it is decided that religious groups should be included in sections 61 and 131, I emphasise the necessity for precision in the language of the sections.

I am also of the view that to merely provide protection for religious groups is discriminatory in and of itself. I develop this in the next section of this submission.

The United Kingdom Position

The issue of restrictions on religious speech are the subject of a specific exception in the UK. I refer to section 29J of the Public Order Act 1986 (United Kingdom), which provides:

Nothing in this Part shall be read or given effect in a way which prohibits or restricts discussion, criticism or expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule, insult or abuse of particular religions or the beliefs or practices of their adherents, or of any other belief system or the beliefs or practices of its adherents, or proselytising or urging adherents of a different religion or belief system to cease practising their religion or belief system.

The Christchurch Royal Commission’s view was that such an exception would make the offence of inciting racial or religious disharmony – especially the latter – unworkable.

It seems that the Royal Commission misunderstands the nuance behind the exception.

The UK exception goes not to the workability of the proposed amendment but rather to the quality of the discourse and recognises that religious debate can become passionate and heated which is a historical fact. Differences over belief systems have long prompted vigorous and highly charged discussion and language.

The exception does not go so far as to allow for the advocacy of violence or hostile action which would fulfil the immediacy or emergency test. It could be argued that because the immediacy test targets consequences rather than content, an exception such as that appearing in section 28J is not required, in that section 29J merely states examples of freedom of expression which are likely to occur and have occurred over the centuries in religious debate.

However, the inclusion of such an exception would provide protection for adherents of all religious faiths who wish to engage in the robust debate that often surrounds matters of belief.

Definitional Difficulties

Excite Hostility

The language of the proposal adopts the “harmful tendency” approach to limiting the freedom of expression. This restricts expression based on an as yet undetermined potential for harm rather than actual or real threat of harm.

In this respect the use of the words “excite hostility” results in imprecision. I suggest the use of the word “incite” for the following reasons:

The verb “to incite” means to urge or spur on; to stir up, animate, instigate or stimulate to do something or towards some action.[2]

“Stirring up” could be said to be an action that precedes incitement, although it is included as part of the definition cited above. Incitement, however, goes further. It suggests that the inciter expects and intends some sort of action or response to the words that are being used.

Incitement goes beyond engendering an emotional response (which is what hatred or hostility is). It seeks the deployment of hatred or hostility towards some end which aligns with my proposal above that hatred or hostility should be considered within the context of threatened violence or hostile action.

If “incitement” or “stirring up” is not associated with an active consequence it would mean that the law is prohibiting the instigation of an emotion without an associated action.

It can be no offence to harbour an emotion or a belief that is so strongly held in a negative sense that it amounts to hatred or hostility. To do so would be to create a “thought crime”. The criminal law addresses behaviour. It does not address feelings. In the case of hatred or hostility it must be manifested in some form of behaviour or threatened behaviour.

It should be noted that the words “stir up” appear in corresponding legislation in the United Kingdom, rather than the word excite. The verb “excite” is used in a slightly unusual sense in section 131 of the Human Rights Act and suggests causation. This means that an “intent to excite” cannot be established without showing an intention to either cause “hostility or ill-will” that did not previously exist, or enhance or increase pre-existing “hostility or ill-will”. It logically follows that preaching hatred to the already converted would not breach section 131.

It will be seen from the above discussion that a greater degree of precision is required in the proposed language of the amendment.

Religious\Ethical Belief?

It should be noted that other prohibited areas of discrimination include ethical belief, which is defined as the lack of a religious belief, whether in respect of a particular religion or religions or all religions.

If the Legislature were to be serious and evenhanded about faith or non-faith based types of discrimination, ethical belief should have been included.

Although ethical belief is clearly defined, religious belief is not. What is religious belief. Does it mean theism in the broadest sense or a belief system surrounding a certain faith based credo such as Buddhism, Islam, Shintoism or Christianity. Religious belief, notwithstanding the definition, can and often does include ethical belief. Christianity has significant ethical underpinnings associated with a faith-based credo.

In my view, to be consistent in approach with definition, the term “religious belief” should be replaced with “faith-based belief”. This term is used in the explanatory statement and more correctly defines the nature of the belief and more clearly distinguishes it from “ethical belief”


The term “harm” is not defined and this should be clarified.

“Harm” is defined in the Harmful Digital Communications Act 2015 (HDCA) as meaning “serious emotional distress”. It should be noted that the HDCA provides remedies for individuals in the context of electronic communications. It is an example of “internet exceptionalism” for the nature of the wrongs specified in that legislation do not exist in the “real” or “kinetic” world.

Within that context there would be difficulties for faith-based groups to establish that harm had been caused to the group rather than to any individuals within the group. The responses of the various members of a group may vary widely to any perceived antagonistic statement.

This highlights the need for precision in the approach to be taken. The “emergency” test would mean an immediacy of threat of physical harm to a group or to members of a group based upon their faith.

As matters stand there is little if any evidence of an immediate threat. The Regulatory Impact Statement which points to a lack of evidence of the harm identified.

In my submission the term harm should be defined as “a realistic threat or danger of physical harm” which would clearly encompass the “emergency” test.


In conclusion I submit as follows:

  1. The references to exciting hostility or causing harm should be redefined to for the abrogation of a NZBORA right
  2. There should be a clear exception that would allow for spirited, robust and at time confrontation religious debate similar to the provisions of section 29J of the Public Order Act 1986 (United Kingdom)
  3. It should be made clear that the protections proposed and available under sections 131 and 161 of the Human Rights Act should not only extend to religious belief but also to ethical belief as defined in the principal Act.

[1] Derek Cheng “Winston Peters criticizes Brunei for imposing strict Sharia law” NZ Herald 31 March 2019 https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=12217917

[2] Oxford English Dictionary 2nd ed.


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