This piece was written in April 2019. I sat on it for a while and then published it on the Social Science Research Network. It has attracted some interest since it was posted and was recently listed on SSRN’s Top Ten download list for LSN: Criminal Offenses & Defenses. As at 21 January a copy had been downloaded 21 times and there have been 180 abstract views.
Of more interest is the fact that a colleague in the United States has used the paper as a teaching aid for his First Amendment teaching course on the case of Terminiello v City of Chicago 337 U.S. 1 (1949). Terminiello held that a “breach of peace” ordinance of the City of Chicago that banned speech which “stirs the public to anger, invites dispute, brings about a condition of unrest, or creates a disturbance” was unconstitutional under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.
My piece, which I have decided to publish on this blog, deals primarily with the position under NZ Law. I had not come across Terminiello but it is interesting to see that it comes largely to a similar conclusion. It is a real thrill that has been found to be useful for teaching purposes.
This paper considers steps that can be taken to legislate against hate speech.
The first issue is the term “hate speech” itself and, in light of the proposals advanced, this emotive and largely meaningless term should be replaced with that of “dangerous speech” which more adequately encapsulates the nature of the harm that the law should address.
The existing criminal provisions relating to what I call communications offences are outlined. Proposals are advanced for an addition to the Crimes Act to fill what appears to be a gap in the communications offences and which should be available to both individuals and groups. A brief discussion then follows about section 61 of the Human Rights Act and section 22 of the Harmful Digital Communications Act. It is suggested that major changes to these pieces of legislation is unnecessary.
Communications offences inevitably involve a tension with the freedom of expression under the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act and the discussion demonstrates that the proposal advanced are a justifiable limitation on freedom of expression, but also emphasises that a diverse society must inevitably contain a diversity of opinion which should be freely expressed.
In the early afternoon of 15 March 2019 a gunman armed with semi-automatic military style weapons attacked two mosques in Christchurch where people had gathered to pray. There were 50 deaths. The alleged gunman was apprehended within about 30 minutes of the attacks. It was found that he had live streamed his actions via Facebook. The stream was viewed by a large number of Facebook members and was shared across Internet platforms.
It also transpired that the alleged gunman had sent a copy of his manifesto entitled “The Great Replacement: Towards a New Society” to a number of recipients using Internet based platforms. Copies of both the live stream and the manifesto have been deemed objectionable by the Chief Censor.
In addition it appears that the alleged gunman participated in discussions on Internet platforms such as 4Chan and 8Chan which are known for some of their discussion threads advocating White Supremacy and Islamophobic tropes
There can be no doubt that what was perpetrated in Christchurch amounted to a hate crime. What has followed has been an outpouring of concern primarily at the fact that the stream of the killings was distributed via Facebook and more widely via the Internet.
The response by Facebook has been less than satisfactory although it would appear that in developing their Livestream facility they then were unable to monitor and control the traffic across it – a digital social media equivalent of Frankenstein’s creature.
However, the killings have focused attention on the wider issue of hate speech and the adequacy of the law to deal with this problem.
Whither “Hate” Speech
The problem with the term “hate speech” is that it is difficult, if not impossible, to define.
Any speech that advocates, incites and intends physical harm to another person must attract legal sanction. It is part of the duty of government to protect its citizens from physical harm.
In such a situation, it matters not that the person against whom the speech is directed is a member of a group or not. All citizens, regardless of any specific identifying characteristics are entitled to be protected from physical harm or from those who would advocate or incite it.
Certain speech may cause harm that is not physical. Such harm may be reputational, economic or psychological. The law provides a civil remedy for such harms.
At the other end of the spectrum – ignoring speech that is anodyne – is the speech that prompts the response “I am offended” – what has been described as the veto statement. From an individual perspective this amounts to a perfectly valid statement of opinion. It may not address the particular argument or engage in any meaningful debate. If anything it is a statement of disengagement akin to “I don’t like what I am hearing.”
The difficulty arises when such a veto statement claims offence to a group identity. Such groups could include the offended woman, the offended homosexual, the offended person of colour or some other categorization based on the characteristics of a particular group. The difficulty with such veto statements – characterizing a comment as “racist” is another form of veto of the argument – is that they legitimize the purely subjective act of taking offence, generally with negative consequences for others.
Should speech be limited, purely because it causes offence? There are many arguments against this proposition. That which protects people’s rights to say things I find objectionable or offensive is precisely what protects my right to object. Do we want to live in a society that is so lacking in robustness that we are habitually ready to take offence? Do we want our children to be educated or socialized in this way? Do we desire our children to be treated as adults, or our adults to be treated as children? Should our role model be the thin-skinned individual who cries “I am offended” or those such as Mandela, Baldwin or Gandhi who share the theme that although something may be grossly offensive, it is beneath my dignity to take offence? Those who abuse me demean themselves.
It may well be that yet another veto statement is applied to the mix. What right does a white, privileged, middle-class old male – a member of a secure group – have to say this. It is my opinion that the marginalization of the “I’m offended” veto statement is at least to open the door to proper debate and disagreement.
Furthermore, the subjective taking of offence based on group identity ignores the fact that we live in a diverse and cosmopolitan society. The “I’m offended” veto statement discourages diversity and, in particular, diversity of opinion. One of the strengths of our society is its diversity and multi-cultural nature. Within this societal structure are a large number of different opinions. For members of one group to shut down the opinions of another on the basis of mere offence is counter to the diverse society that we celebrate.
The term “hate speech” is itself a veto statement and often an opposing view is labelled as “hate speech”. The problem with this approach seems to be that the listener hates what has been said and therefore considers the proposition must be “hate speech”. This is arrant nonsense. The fact that we may find a proposition hateful to our moral or philosophical sense merely allows us to choose not to listen further. But it does not mean that because I find a point of view hateful that it should be shut down. As Justice Holmes said in US v Schwimmer “if there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other, it is the principle of free thought—not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.”
Our commitment to freedom of expression lies not in allowing others the freedom to say things with which we agree, but in allowing them the right to say things with which we absolutely disagree.
Finally, in considering the nature of the veto statement “I’m offended” or categorizing a comment as “hate speech” where lies the harm. Is anybody hurt? The harm in fact comes in trying to shut down the debate with the use of the veto statement.
Aspects of “Harm”
However, recent thinking has had a tendency to extend the concept of harm suffered by individuals. It is accepted that the law should target physical harm, but should it protect an individual from any sort of harm. Catherine MacKinnon has formulated a view, based on the work of J.L. Austin, that many words or sentiments are essentially indistinguishable from deeds and therefore, sexist or misogynistic language should be regarded as a form of violence. This form of assaultive speech can be extended to be available to any group based of distinguishing characteristics or identity.
The emphasis is upon the subjectivity of the person offended. What offence there may be is in the sphere of feelings. It may follow from this that if I do not feel I have been offended then I have not been offended. If we reverse the proposition only the individual may judge whether or not they have been offended. I would suggest that this element of subjectivity is not the interest of the law.
The problem is that such an extension of potentially harmful speech becomes equated with “hate speech” and virtually encompasses any form of critical dialogue. To conflate offence with actual harm means that any sort of dialogue may be impossible.
To commit an offence of violence is to perform an action with objective, observable detrimental physical consequences, the seriousness of which requires the intervention of the law. To give offence is to perform an action – the making of a statement – the seriousness of which is in part dependant upon another person’s interpretation of it.
An example may be given by looking at Holocaust denial. Those who deny the Holocaust may insult the Jewish people. That may compound the injury that was caused by the event itself. But the insult is not identical to the injury. To suggest otherwise is to invite censorship. The denial of the Holocaust is patently absurd. But it needs to be debated as it was when Deborah Lipstadt challenged the assertions of David Irving. In an action brought by Irving for defamation his claims of Holocaust denial were examined and ultimately ridiculed.
Jeremy Waldron is an advocate for limits on speech. He argues that since the aim of “hate speech” is to compromise the dignity of those at whom it is targeted it should be subject to restrictions. Waldron argues that public order means more than an absence of violence but includes the peaceful order of civil society and a dignitary order of ordinary people interacting with one another in ordinary ways based upon an arms-length respect.
So what does Waldron mean by dignity. He relies upon the case of Beauharnais v Illinois where the US Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of a law prohibiting any material that portrayed “depravity, criminality, unchastity or lack of virtue of a class of citizens, of any race, colour, creed or religion.” On this basis Waldron suggests that those who attack the basic social standing and reputation of a group should be deemed to have trespassed upon that group’s dignity and be subject to prosecution. “Hate speech”, he argues, should be aimed at preventing attacks on dignity and not merely offensive viewpoints. Using this approach I could say that Christianity is an evil religion but I could not say Christians are evil people.
The problem with Waldron’s “identity” approach is that is that the dignity of the collective is put before the dignity of its individual members. This raises the difficulty of what may be called “groupthink”. If I think of myself primarily as a member of a group I have defined my identity by my affiliation rather than by myself. This group affiliation suggests a certain fatalism, that possibilities are exhausted, perhaps from birth, and that one cannot be changed. This runs directly against Martin Luther King’s famous statement where he rejected identity based on race but preferred an individual assessment.
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
The problem with the proposition that the state should protect its citizens against what Waldron calls “group defamation” is that it runs the risk of its citizens becoming infantalised, that in fact such an approach undermines their individual dignity by assuming that they cannot answer for themselves.
Rather than encouraging people to be thin-skinned, what is required in a world of increasingly intimate diversity is to learn how to be more thick-skinned and to recognize and celebrate the difference that lies in diversity. As Ronald Dworkin put it, no one has a right not to be offended and in fact we should not take offence too readily. In a free society I may be free to feel offended but should not use that offence to interfere with the freedoms of another.
It will be by now apparent that my view is that “hate speech” is a term that should be avoided, although I accept that it is part of the lexicon, whether we like it or not. Perhaps it might be proper to focus upon the type of speech that society should consider to be unacceptable and that warrants the interference of law.
Any interference must be based on reasonableness and demonstrable justification, given that the right of freedom of expression under the Bill of Rights Act is the subject of interference. To warrant such interference I suggest that rather than use the term “hate speech” the threshold for the interference of the law could be termed “dangerous speech” – speech that presents a danger to an individual or group of individuals.
The intentional advocacy or inciting of physical harm may be classified as “dangerous speech” and justifies the intervention of the law. It is non-specific and available both to individuals and the groups identified in the Human Rights Act. In certain circumstances – where there is incitement to or advocacy of actual physical harm, the intervention of the criminal law is justified.
The law also deals with psychological harm of a special type – serious emotional distress. That is a test in the Harmful Digital Communications Act (HDCA). That legislation applies only to online speech. That may be a lesser form of “dangerous speech” but within the context of the provisions of section 22 HDCA such interference is justified. The elements of intention, actual serious emotional distress and the mixed subjective objective test provide safeguards that could be considered to be a proportionate interference with the freedom of expression and would harmonise the remedies presently available for online speech with that in the physical world.
There are a number of other provisions in the law that deal with forms of speech or communication harms. Some of these warrant discussion because they demonstrate the proper themes that the law should address.
Existing Communications Offences – a summary
The law has been ambivalent towards what could be called speech crimes. Earlier this year the crime of blasphemous libel was removed from the statute book. Sedition and offences similar to it were removed in 2008. Criminal libel was removed as long ago as 1993.
The Crimes Act 1961
At the same time the law has recognized that it must turn its face against those who would threaten to commit offences. Thus section 306 criminalises the actions of threatening to kill or do grievous bodily harm to any person or sends or causes to be received a letter or writing threatening to kill of cause grievous bodily harm. The offence requires knowledge of the contents of the communication.
A letter or writing threatening to destroy or damage any property or injure any animal where there is knowledge of the contents of the communication and it is done without lawful justification or excuse and without claim or right is criminalized by section 307.
It will be noted that the type of communication in section 306 may be oral or written but for a threat to damage property the threat must be in writing.
Section 307A is a complicated section. It was added to the Act in 2003 and was part of a number of measures enacted to deal with terrorism after the September 11 2001 tragedy. It has received attention in one case since its enactment – that of Police v Joseph.
Joseph was charged with a breach of s 307A(1)(b) of the Crimes Act 1961 in that he, without lawful justification or reasonable excuse and intending to cause a significant disruption to something that forms part of an infrastructure facility in New Zealand namely New Zealand Government buildings, did communicate information that he believed to be about an act namely causing explosions likely to cause major property damage.
Mr. Joseph, a secondary school student at the time, created a video clip that lasted a little over three minutes. He used his laptop and sent messages of threats to the New Zealand Government accompanied by some images that linked the language with terrorism, such as pictures of the aerial attack on the World Trade Centre and images of Osama Bin Laden. The message:
- threatened a terror attack on the New Zealand Government and New Zealand Government buildings.
- claimed that large amounts of explosives had been placed in hidden locations on all buildings.
- warned that New Zealand Government websites would be taken down.
- threatened the hacking of New Zealand’s media websites.
- threatened to disclose all Government secrets that have not been released to Wikileaks nor the public.
- warned that obstruction would lead to harm.
The clip demanded that the New Zealand Government repeal or refrain from passing an amendment to the Copyright Act 1994. It was posted on 6 September 2010 and a deadline was set for 11 September 2010. The clip was attributed to the hacktavist group known as Anonymous.
The clip was posted to YouTube. It was not available to the public by means of a search. It was unlisted and could only be located by a person who was aware of the link to the particular clip.
The clip came to the attention of the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) on 7 September 2010 who passed the information on to the Police Cybercrime Unit to commence an investigation. An initial communication from the GCSB on the morning of 7 September postulated that the clip could be a “crackpot random threat” and confirmed that its communication was “completely outside the Anonymous MO”.
The site was quickly disabled and Mr. Joseph was spoken to by the Police. He made full admissions of his involvement.
The real issue at the trial was one of intent. The intention had to be a specific one. The Judge found that the intention of the defendant was to have his message seen and observed on the Internet and, although his behaviour in uploading the clip to YouTube in an Internet café and using an alias could be seen as pointing to an awareness of unlawful conduct it did not, however, point to proof of the intention to cause disruption of the level anticipated by the statute. It transpired that the defendant was aware that the clip would probably be seen by the authorities and also that he expected that it would be “taken down”.
The offence prescribed in section 308 does involve communication as well as active behavior. It criminalises the breaking or damaging or the threatening to break or damage any dwelling with a specific intention – to intimidate or to annoy. Annoyance is a relatively low level reaction to the behavior. A specific behavior – the discharging of firearms that alarms or intends to alarm a person in a dwelling house – again with the intention to intimidate or annoy – is provided for in section 308(2).
The Summary Offences Act
The Summary Offences Act contains the offence of intimidation in section 21. Intimidation may be by words or behavior. The “communication” aspect of intimidation is provided in section 21(1) which states:
Every person commits an offence who, with intent to frighten or intimidate any other person, or knowing that his or her conduct is likely to cause that other person reasonably to be frightened or intimidated,—
- threatens to injure that other person or any member of his or her family, or to damage any of that person’s property;
Thus, there must be a specific intention – to frighten or intimidate – together with a communicative element – the threat to injure the target or a member of his or her family, or damage property.
In some respects section 21 represents a conflation of elements of section 307 and 308 of the Crimes Act together with a lesser harm threatened – that of injury – than appears in section 306 of that Act.
However, there is an additional offence which cannot be overlooked in this discussion and it is that of offensive behavior or language provided in section 4 of the Summary Offences Act.
The language of the section is as follows:
- Every person is liable to a fine not exceeding $1,000 who,—
- in or within view of any public place, behaves in an offensive or disorderly manner; or
- in any public place, addresses any words to any person intending to threaten, alarm, insult, or offend that person; or
- in or within hearing of a public place,—
(i) uses any threatening or insulting words and is reckless whether any person is alarmed or insulted by those words; or
(ii) addresses any indecent or obscene words to any person.
- Every person is liable to a fine not exceeding $500 who, in or within hearing of any public place, uses any indecent or obscene words.
- In determining for the purposes of a prosecution under this section whether any words were indecent or obscene, the court shall have regard to all the circumstances pertaining at the material time, including whether the defendant had reasonable grounds for believing that the person to whom the words were addressed, or any person by whom they might be overheard, would not be offended.
- It is a defence in a prosecution under subsection (2) if the defendant proves that he had reasonable grounds for believing that his words would not be overheard.
In some respects the consequences of the speech suffered by the auditor (for the essence of the offence relies upon oral communication) resemble those provided in section 61 of the Human Rights Act.
Section 4 was considered by the Supreme Court in the case of Morse v Police. Valerie Morse was convicted in the District Court of behaving in an offensive manner in a public place, after setting fire to the New Zealand flag at the Anzac Day dawn service in Wellington in 2007.
In the District Court, High Court and Court of Appeal offensive behavior was held to mean behaviour capable of wounding feelings or arousing real anger, resentment, disgust or outrage in the mind of a reasonable person of the kind actually subjected to it in the circumstances. A tendency to disrupt public order was not required to constitute behaviour that was offensive. Notwithstanding the freedom of expression guaranteed by NZBORA, the behavior was held to be offensive within the context of the ANZAC observance.
The Supreme Court held that offensive behavior must be behaviour which gives rise to a disturbance of public order. Although agreed that disturbance of public order is a necessary element of offensive behaviour under s 4(1)(a), the Judges differed as to the meaning of “offensive” behaviour. The majority considered that offensive behaviour must be capable of wounding feelings or arousing real anger, resentment, disgust or outrage, objectively assessed, provided that it is to an extent which impacts on public order and is more than those subjected to it should have to tolerate. Furthermore it will be seen that a mixed subjective\objective test is present in that the anger, resentment, disgust or outrage must be measured objectively – how would a reasonable person in this situation respond.
It is important to note that in addition to the orality or behavioural quality of the communication – Anderson J referred to it as behavioural expression – it must take place in or within view of a public place. It falls within that part of the Summary Offences Act that is concerned with public order and conduct in public places. Finally, offensive behavior is behavior that does more than merely create offence.
Observations on Communications Offences
In some respects these various offences occupy points on a spectrum. Interestingly, the offence of offensive behavior has the greatest implications for freedom of expression or expressive behavior, in that the test incorporates a subjective one in the part of the observer. But it also carries the lightest penalty, and as a summary offence can be seen to be the least serious on the spectrum. The section could be applied in the case of oral or behavioural expression against individuals or groups based on colour, race, national or ethnic origin, religion, gender, disability or sexual orientation as long as the tests in Morse are met.
At the other end of the spectrum is section 307 dealing with threats to kill or cause grievous bodily harm which carries with it a maximum sentence of 7 years imprisonment. This section is applicable to all persons irrespective of colour, race, national or ethnic origin, religion, gender, disability or sexual orientation as are sections 307, 308, section 21 of the Summary Offences Act and section 22 of the Harmful Digital Communications Act which could all occupy intermediate points on the spectrum based on the elements of the offence and the consequences that may attend upon a conviction.
There are some common themes to sections 306, 307, 308 of the Crimes Act and section 21 of the Summary Offences Act.
First, there is the element of fear that may be caused by the behavior. Even although the issue of intimidation is not specifically an element of the offences under sections 306 and 307, there is a fear that the threat may be carried out.
Secondly there is a specific consequence prescribed – grievous bodily harm or damage to or destruction of property.
Thirdly there is the element of communication or communicative behavior that has the effect of “sending a message”.
These themes assist in the formulation of a speech-based offence that is a justifiable limitation on free speech, that recognizes that there should be some objectively measurable and identifiable harm that flows from the speech, but that does not stifle robust debate in a free and democratic society.
A Possible Solution
There is a change that could be made to the law which would address what appears to be something of a gulf between the type of harm contemplated by section 306 and lesser, yet just as significant harms.
I propose that the following language could cover the advocacy or intentional incitement of actual physical injury against individuals or groups. Injury is a lesser physical harm than grievous bodily harm and fills a gap between serious emotional distress present in the HDCA and the harm contemplated by section 306.
The language of the proposal is technology neutral. It could cover the use of words or communication either orally, in writing, electronically or otherwise. Although I dislike the use of the words “for the avoidance of doubt” in legislation for they imply a deficiency of clarity of language in the first place, there could be a definition of words or communication to include the use of electronic media.
The language of the proposal is as follows:
It is an offence to use words or communication that advocates or intends to incite actual physical injury against an individual or group of individuals based upon, in the case of a group, identifiable particular characteristics of that group
This proposal would achieve a number of objectives. It would capture speech or communications that cause or threaten to cause harm of a lesser nature than grievous bodily harm stated in section 306.
The proposal is based upon ascertaining an identifiable harm caused by the speech or communicative act. This enables the nature of the speech to be crystallised in an objective manner rather than the unclear, imprecise and potentially inconsistent use of the umbrella term “hate speech.”
The proposal would cover speech, words or communication across all media. It would establish a common threshold for words or communication below which an offence would be committed.
The proposal would cover any form of communicative act which was the term used by Anderson J in Morse and which the word “expression” used in section 14 of NZBORA encompasses.
The tension between freedom of expression and the limitations that may be imposed by law is acknowledged. It would probably need to be stated, although it should not be necessary, that in applying the provisions of the section the Court would have to have regard to the provisions of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990.
Other Legislative Initiatives
The Human Rights Act
There has been consideration of expanding other legislative avenues to address the problem of “dangerous” speech. The first avenue lies in the Human Rights Act which prohibits the incitement of disharmony on the basis of race, ethnicity, colour or national origins. One of the recent criticisms of the legislation is that it does not apply to incitement for reasons of religion, gender, disability or sexual orientation.
Before considering whether such changes need to be made – a different consideration to whether they should be made – it is important to understand how the Human Rights Act works in practice. The Act prohibits a number of discriminatory practices in relation to various activities and services. It also prohibits indirect discrimination which is an effects based form of activity. Victimisation or less favourable treatment based on making certain disclosures is prohibited. Discrimination in advertising along with provisions dealing with sexual or racial harassment are the subject of provisions.
The existing provisions relating to racial disharmony as a form of discrimination and racial harassment are contained in section 61 and 63 of the Act.
There are two tests under section 61. One is an examination of the content of the communication. Is it threatening, abusive or insulting? If that has been established the next test is to consider whether it is:
- Likely to excite hostility against or
- Bring into contempt
Any group of persons either in or coming to New Zealand on the ground of colour, race or ethnic or national origins.
These provisions could well apply to “dangerous speech”. Is it necessary, therefore, to extend the existing categories in section 61 to include religion, gender, disability or sexual orientation.
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?
The difficulty with including threatening, abusive or insulting language against groups based upon religion means that not only would Islamaphobic “hate speech” be caught, but so too would the anti-Christian, anti-West, anti “Crusader” rhetoric of radical Islamic jihadi groups be caught. Would the recent 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?
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.
This example illustrates 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.
Gender, Disability or Sexual Orientation
The Human Rights Act already has provisions relating to services-based discrimination on these additional grounds. The question is whether or not there is any demonstrated need to extend the categories protected under section 61 to these groups.
Under the current section 61 test, any threatening, abusive or insulting language directed towards or based upon gender, disability or sexual orientation could qualify as “hate speech” if the speech was likely to excite hostility against or bring into contempt a group of persons. The difficulty lies not so much with threatening language, which is generally clear and easy to determine, but with language which may be abusive or insulting.
Given the sensitivities that many have and the ease with which many are “offended” it could well be that a softer and less robust approach may be taken to what constitutes abusive or insulting language.
For this reason the test surrounding the effect of such speech needs to be abundantly clear. If the categories protected by section 61 are to be extended there must be a clear causative nexus between the speech and the exciting of hostility or the bringing into contempt. Alternatively the test could be strengthened as suggested above to replace the test of exciting hostility or bringing into contempt with “advocating and encouraging physical violence against..”
It should be observed that section 61 covers groups that fall within the protected categories. Individuals within those groups have remedies available to them under the provisions of the Harmful Digital Communications Act 2015.
The Harmful Digital Communications Act 2015
The first observation that must be made is that the Harmful Digital Communications Act 2015 (HDCA) is an example of Internet Exceptionalism in that it deals only with speech communicated via electronic means. It does not cover speech that may take place in a physical public place, by a paper pamphlet or other form of non-electronic communication.
The justification for such exceptionalism was considered by the Law Commission in the Ministerial Briefing Paper. It was premised upon the fact that digital information is pervasive, its communication is not time limited and can take place at any time – thus extending the reach of the cyber-bully – and it is often shared among groups with consequent impact upon relationships. These are some of the properties of digital communications systems to which I have made reference elsewhere.
A second important feature of the HDCA is that the remedies set out in the legislation are not available to groups. They are available only to individuals. Individuals are defined as “natural persons” and applications for civil remedies can only be made by an “affected individual” who alleges that he or she has suffered or will suffer harm as a result of a digital communication. Under section 22 – the offence section – the victim of an offence is the individual who is the target of a posted digital communication.
The HDCA provides remedies for harmful digital communications. A harmful digital communication is one which
- Is a digital communication communicated electronically and includes any text message, writing, photograph, picture, recording, or other matter
- Causes harm – that is serious emotional distress
In addition there are ten communications principles. Section 6(2) of the Act requires the Court to take these principles into account in performing functions or exercising powers under the Act.
For the purposes of a discussion about “dangerous speech” principles 2, 3, 8 and 10 are relevant. Principle 10 extends the categories present in section 61 of the Human Rights Act to include those discussed above.
The reason for the difference is that the consequences of a harmful digital communication are more of an individual and personal nature. Harm or serious emotional distress must be caused. This may warrant an application for an order pursuant to section 19 of the Act – what may be described as a civil enforcement order. A precondition to an application for any of the orders pursuant to section 19 is that the matter must be considered by the Approved Agency – presently Netsafe. If Netsafe is unable to resolve the matter, then it is open to the affected individual to apply to the District Court.
The orders that are available are not punitive but remedial in nature. They include an order that the communication be taken down or access to it be disabled; that there be an opportunity for a reply or for an apology; that there be a form of restraining order so that the defendant is prohibited from re-posting the material or encouraging others to do so.
In addition orders may be made against online content hosts requiring them to take material down along with the disclosure of the details and particulars of a subscriber who may have posted a harmful digital communication. Internet Service Providers (described in the legislation as IPAPs) may be required to provide details of an anonymous subscriber to the Court.
It should be noted that the element of intending harm need not be present on the part of the person posting the electronic communication. In such a situation the material is measured against the communications principles along with evidence that the communication has caused serious emotional distress.
Section 22 – Causing harm by posting a digital communication
The issue of intentional causation of harm is covered by section 22 of the Act. A mixed subjective-objective test that is required for an assessment of content. The elements necessary for an offence under section 22 HDCA are as follows:
A person must post a digital communication with a specific intention – that it cause harm to a victim;
It must be proven that the posting of the communication would cause harm to an ordinary reasonable person in the position of the victim;
Finally, the communication must cause harm to the victim.
Harm is defined as serious emotional distress. In addition the Court may take a number of factors into account in determining whether a post may cause harm
- the extremity of the language used:
- the age and characteristics of the victim:
- whether the digital communication was anonymous:
- whether the digital communication was repeated:
- the extent of circulation of the digital communication:
- whether the digital communication is true or false:
- the context in which the digital communication appeared.
The requirement that harm be intended as well as caused has been the subject of some criticism. If there has been an intention to cause harm, is it necessary that there be proof that harm was caused? Similarly, surely it is enough that harm was caused even if it were not intended?
As to the first proposition it must be remembered that section 22 criminalises a form of expression. The Law Commission was particularly concerned that the bar should be set high, given the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 provisions in section 14 regarding freedom of expression. If expression is to be criminalized the consequences of that expression must warrant the involvement of the criminal law and must be accompanied by the requisite mens rea or intention.
As to the second proposition, the unintended causation of harm is covered by the civil enforcement provisions of the legislation. To eliminate the element of intention would make the offence one of strict liability – an outcome reserved primarily for regulatory or public interest types of offence.
The Harmful Digital Communications Act and “Dangerous Speech”
Could the HDCA in its current form be deployed to deal with “dangerous speech”. The first thing to be remembered is that the remedies in the legislation are available to individuals. Thus if there were a post directed towards members of a group, an individual member of that group could consider proceedings.
Would that person be “a victim” within the meaning of section 22? It is important to note that the indefinite article is used rather than the definite one. Conceivably if a post were made about members of a group the collective would be the target of the communication and thus every individual member of that collective could make a complaint and claim to be a target of the communication under section 22(4).
To substantiate the complaint it would be necessary to prove that the communication caused serious emotional distress which may arise from a cumulation of a number of factors. Whether the communication fulfilled the subjective\objective test in section 22(1)(b) would, it is suggested, be clear if the communication amounted to “hate speech”, taking into account the communications principles, along with the factors that should be taken into account in section 22(2)((a) – (g). The issue of intention to cause harm could be discerned either directly or by inference from the nature of the language used in the communication.
In addition it is suggested that the civil remedies would also be available to a member of a group to whom “dangerous speech” was directed. Even although a group may be targeted, an individual member of the group would qualify as an affected individual if serious emotional distress were suffered. A consideration of the communications principles and whether or not the communication was in breach of those principles would be a relatively straightforward matter of interpretation.
The Harmful Digital Communications Act in Action
Although the principal target of the legislation was directed towards cyber-bullying by young people, most of the prosecutions under the Act have been within the context of relationship failures or breakdowns and often have involved the transmission of intimate images or videos – a form of what the English refer to as “revenge porn”. There have been a relatively large number of prosecutions under section 22 – something that was not anticipated by the Law Commission in its Briefing Paper.
Information about the civil enforcement process is difficult to obtain. Although the Act is clear that decisions, including reasons, in proceedings must be published. There are no decisions available on any website to my knowledge.
From my experience there are two issues that arise regarding the civil enforcement process. The first is the way the cases come before the Court. When the legislation was enacted the then Minister of Justice, Judith Collins, considered that the Law Commission recommendation that there be a Communications Tribunal to deal with civil enforcement applications was not necessary and that the jurisdiction under the legislation would form part of the normal civil work of the District Court.
Because of pressures on the District Court, civil work does not receive the highest priority and Harmful Digital Communications applications take their place as part of the ordinary business of the Court. This means that the purpose of the Act in providing a quick and efficient means of redress for victimsis not being fulfilled.  One case involving communications via Facebook in January of 2017 has been the subject of several part-heard hearings and has yet to be concluded. Even if the Harmful Digital Communications Act is not to be deployed to deal with “dangerous speech”, it is suggested that consideration be given to the establishment of a Communications Tribunal as suggested by the Law Communication so that hearings of applications can be fast-tracked.
The second issue surrounding the civil enforcement regime involves that of jurisdiction over off-shore online content hosts such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the like. Although Facebook and Google have been cited as parties and have been served in New Zealand, they do not acknowledge the jurisdiction of the Court but nevertheless indicate a willingness to co-operate with requests made by the Court without submitting to the jurisdiction of the Court.
In my view the provisions of Subpart 3 of Part 6 of the District Court Rules would be applicable. These provisions allow service outside New Zealand as a means of establishing the jurisdiction of the New Zealand Courts. The provisions of Rule 6.23 relating to service without leave are not applicable and, as the law stands, the leave of the Court would have to be sought to serve an offshore online content host. This is a complex process that requires a number of matters to be addressed about a case before leave may be granted. Once leave has been granted there may be a protest to the jurisdiction by the online content host before the issue of jurisdiction could be established.
One possible change to the law might be an amendment to Rule 6.23 allowing service of proceedings under the HDCA without the leave of the Court. There would still be the possibility that there would be a protest to the jurisdiction but if that could be answered it would mean that the Courts would be able to properly make orders against offshore online content hosts.
Are Legislative Changes Necessary?
It will be clear by now that the law relating to “dangerous speech” in New Zealand does not require major widespread change or reform. What changes may be needed are relatively minor and maintain the important balance contained in the existing law between protecting citizens or groups from speech that is truly harmful and ensuring that the democratic right to freedom of expression is preserved.
The Importance of Freedom of Expression
The New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990
The New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 (NZBORA) provides at section 14
“Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, including the freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and opinions of any kind in any form.”
This right is not absolute. It is subject to section 5 which provides “the rights and freedoms contained in this Bill of Rights may be subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.”
Section 4 reinforces the concept of Parliamentary supremacy. If a specific piece of legislation conflicts or is inconsistent with NZBORA, the specific piece of legislation prevails. Thus, specific pieces of legislation which impose restrictions or limitations upon freedom of expression – such as the Human Rights Act 1993 and the Harmful Digital Communications Act 2015 – prevail although if an enactment can be given a meaning that is consistent with the rights and freedoms contained in NZBORA, that meaning shall be preferred to any other meaning.
This then provides a test for considering limitations or restrictions on the rights under NZBORA. Limitations must be reasonable and must be demonstrably justified within the context of a free and democratic society.
Thus, when we consider legislation that may impinge upon or limit the freedom of expression the limitation must be
- Demonstrably justified
- Yet recognizing that we live in a free and democratic society.
The justified limitations test contains within it a very real tension. On the one hand there is a limitation on a freedom. On the other there is a recognition of freedom in that we live in a free and democratic society. I would suggest that although NZBORA does not use this language, the emphasis upon a free and democratic society, and the requirement of reasonableness and demonstrable justification imports an element of necessity. Is the limitation of the freedom necessary?
The problem with freedom of expression is that it is elusive. What sort of limitations on the freedom of expression may be justified?
Freedom of Expression in Practice
The reality with freedom of expression is that it is most tested when we hear things with which we disagree. It is not limited to the comfortable space of agreeable ideas.
Salman Rushdie said that without the freedom to offend the freedom of expression is nothing. Many critics of current debates seem to conflate the freedom to express those ideas with the validity of those ideas, and their judgement on the latter means that they deny the freedom to express them.
“I am unable to see any lawful basis for the arrest or therefore the conviction. PC Tennant had done precisely the right thing with the three youths and sent them on their way. There was no suggestion of highway obstruction. Nobody had to stop and listen. If they did so, they were as free to express the view that the preachers should be locked up or silenced as the appellant and her companions were to preach. Mr. Kealy for the prosecutor submitted that if there are two alternative sources of trouble, a constable can properly take steps against either. This is right, but only if both are threatening violence or behaving in a manner that might provoke violence. Mr. Kealy was prepared to accept that blame could not attach for a breach of the peace to a speaker so long as what she said was inoffensive. This will not do. Free speech includes not only the inoffensive but the irritating, the contentious, the eccentric, the heretical, the unwelcome and the provocative provided it does not tend to provoke violence. Freedom only to speak inoffensively is not worth having. What Speakers’ Corner (where the law applies as fully as anywhere else) demonstrates is the tolerance which is both extended by the law to opinion of every kind and expected by the law in the conduct of those who disagree, even strongly, with what they hear. From the condemnation of Socrates to the persecution of modern writers and journalists, our world has seen too many examples of state control of unofficial ideas. A central purpose of the European Convention on Human Rights has been to set close limits to any such assumed power. We in this country continue to owe a debt to the jury which in 1670 refused to convict the Quakers William Penn and William Mead for preaching ideas which offended against state orthodoxy.”
One way of shutting down debate and the freedom of expression is to deny a venue, as we have seen in the unwise decision of Massey University Vice Chancellor Jan Thomas to deny Mr Don Brash a chance to speak on campus. The Auckland City did the same with the recent visit by speakers Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux.
Lord Justice Sir Stephen Sedley (who wrote the judgement in Redmond-Bate v DPP above) writing privately, commented on platform denial in this way:
” A great deal of potentially offensive speech takes place in controlled or controllable forums – schools, universities, newspapers, broadcast media – which are able to make and enforce their own rules. For these reasons it may be legitimate to criticise a periodical such as Charlie Hebdo for giving unjustified offence – for incivility, in other words – without for a moment wanting to see it or any similarly pungent periodical penalised or banned. Correspondingly, the “no platform” policies adopted by many tertiary institutions and supported in general by the National Union of Students are intended to protect minorities in the student body from insult or isolation. But the price of this, the stifling of unpopular or abrasive voices, is a high one, and it is arguable that it is healthier for these voices to be heard and challenged. Challenge of course brings its own problems: is it legitimate to shout a speaker down? But these are exactly the margins of civility which institutions need to think about and manage. They are not a justification for taking sides by denying unpopular or abrasive speakers a platform.”
So the upshot of all this is that we should be careful in overreacting in efforts to control, monitor, stifle or censor speech with which we disagree but which may not cross the high threshold of “dangerous speech”. And certainly be careful in trying to hobble the Internet platforms and the ISPs. Because of the global distributed nature of the Internet it would be wrong for anyone to impose their local values upon a world wide communications network. The only justifiable solution would be one that involved international consensus and a recognition of the importance of freedom of expression.
The function of government is to protect its citizens from harm and to hold those who cause harm accountable. By the same token a free exchange of ideas is essential in a healthy and diverse democracy. In such a way diversity of opinion is as essential as the diversity of those who make up the community.
I have posited a solution that recognizes and upholds freedom of expression and yet recognizes that there is a threshold below which untrammeled freedom of expression can cause harm. It is when expression falls below that threshold that the interference of the law is justified,
I have based my proposal upon a term based upon an identifiable and objective consequence – speech which is dangerous – rather than the term “hate speech”. Indeed there are some who suggest that mature democracies should move beyond “hate speech” laws. Ash suggests that it is impossible to reach a conclusive verdict upon the efficacy of “hate speech” laws and suggests that there is scant evidence that mature democracies with extensive hate speech laws manifest any less racism, sexism or other kinds of prejudice than those with few or no such laws. Indeed, it has been suggested that the application of “hate speech” laws has been unpredictable and disproportionate. A further problem with “hate speech” is that they tend to encourage people to take offence rather than learn to live with the fact that there is a diversity of opinions, or ignore it or deal with it by speaking back – preferably with reasoned argument rather than veto statements.
It is for this reason that I have approached the problem from the perspective of objective, identifiable harm rather than wrestling with the very fluid concept of “hate speech.” For that I may be criticized for ducking the issue. The legal solution proposed is a suggested way of confronting the issue rather than ducking it. It preserves freedom of expression as an essential element of a healthy and functioning democracy yet recognizes that there are occasions when individuals and members of groups may be subjected to physical danger arising from forms of expression.
What is essential is that the debate should be conducted in a measured, objective and unemotive manner. Any interference with freedom of expression must be approached with a considerable degree of care. An approach based upon an objectively identifiable danger rather than an emotive concept such as “hate” provides a solution.
 Presumably on the grounds that they depict, promote or encourage crime or terrorism or that the publication is injurious to the public good. See the definition of objectionable in the Films Videos and Publications Classification Act 1993
 Timothy Garton Ash Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World (Atlantic Books, London 2016) p. 211
 US v Schwimmer 279 US 644 (1929)
 Daphne Patai Heterophobia: sexual harassment and the future of feminism (Rowman and Littlefield, Lanham 1998).
 See Irving v Penguin Books Ltd  EWHC QB 115.
 Jeremy Waldron The Harm in Hate Speech (Harvard University Press, Cambridge 2012 p. 120.
 Beauharnais v Illinois 343 US 250 (1952).
 Section 307A reads as follows:
307A Threats of harm to people or property
(1) Every one is liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 7 years if, without lawful justification or reasonable excuse, and intending to achieve the effect stated in subsection (2), he or she—
(a) threatens to do an act likely to have 1 or more of the results described in subsection (3); or
(b) communicates information—
(i) that purports to be about an act likely to have 1 or more of the results described in subsection (3); and
(ii) that he or she believes to be false.
(2) The effect is causing a significant disruption of 1 or more of the following things:
(a) the activities of the civilian population of New Zealand:
(b) something that is or forms part of an infrastructure facility in New Zealand:
(c) civil administration in New Zealand (whether administration undertaken by the Government of New Zealand or by institutions such as local authorities, District Health Boards, or boards of trustees of schools):
(d) commercial activity in New Zealand (whether commercial activity in general or commercial activity of a particular kind).
(3) The results are—
(a) creating a risk to the health of 1 or more people:
(b) causing major property damage:
(c) causing major economic loss to 1 or more persons:
(d) causing major damage to the national economy of New Zealand.
(4) To avoid doubt, the fact that a person engages in any protest, advocacy, or dissent, or engages in any strike, lockout, or other industrial action, is not, by itself, a sufficient basis for inferring that a person has committed an offence against subsection (1).
  DCR 482. For a full discussion of this case see David Harvey Collisions in the Digital Paradigm: Law and rulemaking in the Internet Age (Hart Publishing, Oxford, 2017) at p. 268 and following.
 Police v Joseph above at .
 Ibid at .
  NZSC 45.
 Ibid at para .
 See Human Rights Commission chief legal advisor Janet Bidois quoted in Michelle Duff “Hate crime law review fast-tracked following Christchurch mosque shootings” Stuff 30 March 2019. https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/christchurch-shooting/111661809/hate-crime-law-review-fasttracked-following-christchurch-mosque-shooting
 Human Rights Act 1993 sections 21 – 63.
 Ibid section 65.
 Ibid section 66
 Ibid sections 67 and 69.
 The provisions of section 61(1) state:
(1) It shall be unlawful for any person—
(a) to publish or distribute written matter which is threatening, abusive, or insulting, or to broadcast by means of radio or television or other electronic communication words which are threatening, abusive, or insulting; or
(b) to use in any public place as defined in section 2(1) of the Summary Offences Act 1981, or within the hearing of persons in any such public place, or at any meeting to which the public are invited or have access, words which are threatening, abusive, or insulting; or
(c) to use in any place words which are threatening, abusive, or insulting if the person using the words knew or ought to have known that the words were reasonably likely to be published in a newspaper, magazine, or periodical or broadcast by means of radio or television,—
being matter or words likely to excite hostility against or bring into contempt any group of persons in or who may be coming to New Zealand on the ground of the colour, race, or ethnic or national origins of that group of persons.
It should be noted that Internet based publication is encompassed by the use of the words “or other electronic communication”.
 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
 New Zealand Law Commission Ministerial Briefing Paper Harmful Digital Communications:The adequacy of the current sanctions and remedies. (New Zealand Law Commission, Wellington, August 2012) https://www.lawcom.govt.nz/sites/default/files/projectAvailableFormats/NZLC%20MB3.pdf (last accessed 26 April 2019)
 See David Harvey Collisions in the Digital Paradigm: Law and Rulemaking in the Internet (Hart Publishing, Oxford, 2017) especially at Chapter 2
 Harmful Digital Communications Act 2015 section 11.
 Harmful Digital Communications Act 2015 section 22(4).
 It may also include a consensual or non-consensual intimate video recording
 Harmful Digital Communications Act 2015 section 6. These principles are as follows:
Principle 1 A digital communication should not disclose sensitive personal facts about an individual.
Principle 2 A digital communication should not be threatening, intimidating, or menacing.
Principle 3 A digital communication should not be grossly offensive to a reasonable person in the position of the affected individual.
Principle 4 A digital communication should not be indecent or obscene.
Principle 5 A digital communication should not be used to harass an individual.
Principle 6 A digital communication should not make a false allegation.
Principle 7 A digital communication should not contain a matter that is published in breach of confidence.
Principle 8 A digital communication should not incite or encourage anyone to send a message to an individual for the purpose of causing harm to the individual.
Principle 9 A digital communication should not incite or encourage an individual to commit suicide.
Principle 10 A digital communication should not denigrate an individual by reason of his or her colour, race, ethnic or national origins, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or disability.
 Harmful Digital Communications Act Section 22(1)(c)
 See Police v B  NZHC 526.
 For some of the statistics on prosecutions under the Act see Nikki MacDonald “Revenge Porn: Is the Harmful Digital Communications Act Working?” 9 March 2019 https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/crime/110768981/revenge-porn-is-the-harmful-digital-communications-act-working
 Harmful Digital Communications Act Section 16(4)
 Harmful Digital Communications Act Section 3(b)
 See New Zealand Bill of Rights Act section 6. Note also that the Harmful Digital Communications Act provides at section 6 that in performing its functions or exercising powers under the Act the Approved Agency and the Courts must act consistently with the rights and freedoms provided in NZBORA.
  EWHC Admin 733.
 Ibid at para .
 Stephen Sedley Law and the Whirligig of Time (Hart Publishing, Oxford, 2018) p. 176-177. The emphasis is mine.
 For example see Timothy Garton Ash Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World (Atlantic, London 2016) especially at 219 and following.