Hate crime law should override freedom of speech - law professor

Concerns over freedom of speech shouldn't trump hate crime legislation, according to a leading legal brain.

Police are pushing the Government to introduce a law specific to hate crimes, in the wake of an expletive-laden assault on a group of Muslim women in Huntly at the weekend.

"We are concerned about it, we have seen an increase in crimes of [that] nature," Police Commissioner Mike Bush told a parliamentary select committee on Wednesday.

But without a specific law, Cmmr Bush says the evidence is largely anecdotal.

Mark Henaghan, dean of law at Otago University, told The AM Show on Thursday there is already wriggle room in the law to account for the motivation behind existing crimes.

"We do have on our sentencing laws... a provision which says if a crime is motivated with regard to hostility towards a particular group... if you threaten or assault someone and it's motivated either fully or partially through hostility towards that group, that can increase your sentence."

Section 9 of the Sentencing Act includes "hostility towards a group of persons who have an enduring common characteristic such as race, colour, nationality, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, or disability" as aggravating factors that could contribute towards a longer sentence.

Police Minister Paula Bennett says that's adequate.

"The sort of hate speech stuff can be used as an aggravating factor in sentencing and I think that's kind of good, but as far as doing something further than that, that's not one of our priorities at the moment."

Hate speech is also covered under the Human Rights Act 1993, which outlaws "words likely to excite hostility or ill-will against, or bring into contempt or ridicule, any such group of persons in New Zealand on the ground of the colour, race, or ethnic or national origins of that group of persons".

Sexual orientation and religious beliefs are not covered in the same way - and Prof Henaghan says maybe it's time they were.

"Some people find it difficult because they think it stops freedom of speech, but there's no such thing as true freedom of speech. If I say something defamatory now about someone, I don't have free speech to do that.

"Should people really have free speech to denigrate and degrade a particular group because they don't happen to like them, and have a sense of hatred towards them?"

Prof Henaghan says crimes motivated by hate can have a negative impact not just on the immediate victim, but their wider group - be it race, sexual orientation or religion - by inciting further crimes against members of that group.

"Anyone who would vilify or degrade another group because of their race, their colour or their sexual orientation - put it on a poster, write it in a letter put it online - that's what a hate crime is, defaming a whole group in some way through speech," he says.

Like Ms Bennett, Justice Minister Amy Adams says the existing legislation is enough, and the kinds of behaviour a hate crime law would cover aren't common.

"When it does come up I haven't seen any indication that our framework fails to deal with it."

Megan Walton, the woman responsible for the attack in Huntly, pleaded guilty to three charges, and told Newshub on Wednesday she is "embarrassed and angry with herself".

She battles mental illness, and is struggling to get help for her bipolar disorder, social anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder conditions.


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