Free speech debate reignites after Christchurch terror attack

The free speech debate has been reignited in the aftermath of the Christchurch terror attack.

The alleged gunman's manifesto has been banned in New Zealand, multiple overseas websites have been blocked, while others are calling for a renewed crackdown on 'hate speech'.

How far are we willing to go to confront violent extremism - and what are the consequences?

Magic Talk hosts Sean Plunket and Ryan Bridge say it's important to allow people to say what they think.

"If we don't know what each other are thinking how can we discuss problems, how can we formulate solutions to those problems, how can we decide where levels of behaviour or convention should lie unless we have dialogue and unless we have conversations," Plunket says.

"And you cannot have a conversation, a real conversation, without being honest. And you can't be honest if you are in fear of being shouted down and told you can't say something."

Where should the limit be?

"Anything that that is an immediate incitement to violence is by definition hate speech and shouldn't be allowed," Bridge says.

"If you're saying go out and kill Muslim people, go out and kill brown people, you shouldn't be able to say that."

Security analyst Paul Buchanan agrees, saying there's a difference between protected free speech and hate speech.

"Once you start inciting violence of any sort, that's off," he told Newshub.

"Do not use racial language, racial epithets or insult people - that's a slippery slope."

Plunket says the limit around free speech moves with convention and understanding.

"We have the boundaries of defamation and we have boundaries under our human rights laws for hate speech," he says.

"I think those have to be debated in an open way and we have to be able to have a debate about where the boundaries are and we need freedom of speech for that."

But in an interview with The Nation last weekend, Green MP Golriz Ghahraman said the problem is that New Zealand doesn't have a very workable, effective definition of hate speech and called for legislation to protect groups based on "actual harm".

"It's about whether a third party would be moved - and this is the standard in New Zealand in terms of our jurisprudence, whether a third party would find the speech to be such that they would become hostile toward that group," she said.

Who has the power to censor us?

The Chief Censor's banning of the alleged killer's manifesto, which details the his white supremacist and anti-migrant views, has outraged free speech activists.

"What we all want is to understand what happened and stop it from happening again," Free Speech Coalition spokesperson David Cumin told The AM Show last month.

"Our position is that the best way to do that is to counter the hate, to understand the hate, to be able to have access to what was written so we can analyse it and counter it properly. The only way to do that is to have access to it."

"This is a completely improper use of the censorship powers," Free Speech Coalition spokesperson Stephen Franks said.

"Most New Zealanders will have no interest in reading the rants of an evil person. But there is a major debate going on right now on the causes of extremism. Kiwis should not be wrapped in cotton wool with their news and information censored."

Bridge says he's worried about allowing the Government to censor what people can read and view as it's a "dangerous power to give to the Government".

"The problem you have when you start to limit free speech and you talk about hate speech is who's the censor? Who's the person who decides that what you might consider to be hate speech might be what I consider to be a reasonable criticism of say immigration policy for example," he says.

"You've got really well-respected academics in this country and around the world who would tell you that the fear people have about  limiting freedom of speech is who is the censor? Who is the person who decides that is hate speech that's not?

"Because what we consider ok to say today might be banned tomorrow, and the ruler, the adjudicator in that is the state and I don't think they should have that right."

New Zealanders don't just face censorship from the Government, they could face new laws. Justice Minister Andrew Little has been urgently reviewing New Zealand's hate speech laws.

Little told RNZ hate speech is not adequately dealt with at present by the Human Rights Act and Harmful Digital Communications Act.

"The conclusion I've drawn as the minister is that the laws are inadequate and I think we need to do better," Mr Little said.

Will cracking down drive people underground?

Fredrick Brennan founded notorious image-board website 8chan in 2013 as he believed rival website 4chan was becoming authoritarian and censoring free speech.

Since then it's become a hotbed for extremist views and faced controversy over child pornography, swatting incidents and co-ordinated harassment campaigns.

On the day of the massacre at the mosques, the alleged gunman appears to have posted on 8chan with links to his livestream and so-called manifesto.

Although that post was deleted, the video has been reposted on 8chan in the days since, along with sickening comments of support for the terrorist and joke memes about his atrocity.

After the attack a number of overseas websites were blocked by New Zealand internet service providers, including 8chan and Kiwi Farms.

The decision itself to block these websites has been controversial but Dr Buchanan says it was necessary as they offer a "megaphone to hate mongers".

"They operate under the cloak of free speech but they are in fact hate speech," he told Newshub.

"They were urging the shooter to shoot kids again. Under no fair conception of free speech should that stuff see the light of day."

At the same time, Bridge is concerned that preventing discussions on normal social media platforms will drive people towards these more extremist sites.

"I think we have to have reasonable intellectual discussions between rational human beings so that we don't all end up in these sort of subversive little corners of the internet working against each other and building up this hate," he says.

"What happens when you start banning words, comments, when you start limiting free speech, what happens to those people who might be on the fringes... they go further into the quagmire, they go deep underground into you platforms and your chatrooms that this guy was sort of reading."

Dr Buchanan says only the "hardcore" will be interested in going to these extremist sites.

"If you drive the forces of darkness further underground the people sitting on the fence not going to go there," he told Newshub.

Are people trying to use the debate to shut down views they don't like?

Plunket says a small minority are trying to use the aftermath of the attack to shut down speech they don't like as part of a "moral panic".

"I think what we've seen is a whole lot of people who have, to be brutally frank, tried to exploit the tragedy in Christchurch to put themselves in the position of deciding what is acceptable or not," Plunket says.

"They are trying to, through some moral panic, say we will have control of this and the people they're trying to shut down are often just people they politically disagree with on a whole lot of these issues that to be frank have nothing directly to do with that tragedy in Christchurch."

And Bridge says this debate has reinforced his view that free speech is important.

"If anything it's probably strengthened and solidified my views," he says.

But to those who have often been the victims of hate speech, change needs to come quickly.

As Dr Buchanan says, the increasing number of threats over social media has the effect of paralysing those who would otherwise speak out.

"Before extremists would have to meet face-to-face or over the telephone and limit the scope of their endeavour. Now they can meet anyone around the world," he says.

"It's no longer skinheads sitting in garage drinking beer and talking about how they hate people of colour."