White supremacist stickers 'objectionable' but not illegal - expert

White supremacist stickers plastered around New Zealand might be offensive, but that doesn't mean they are necessarily illegal, a leading law expert believes.

Earlier this year, a group - which Newshub has decided not to name - was formed aiming to build a "community for European New Zealanders".

In a September "action summary" posted on its website, the group boasts of a national  "stickering campaign" with photos of material plastered across towns like Nelson and Palmerston North as well as on the University of Auckland (UoA) campus. 

The stickers show the group's logo and market its website address. Similar posters have also been seen. On the website, the group describes an ideal member as a "physically fit, tidy European male" and tells "non-Europeans" to "look elsewhere".

The material's presence around New Zealand - particularly at UoA - has angered many, who demanded they should be taken down for promoting such a group.

University of Waikato law Professor Al Gillespie says the stickers advertise a group most Kiwis would find offensive due to the ideas it spouts and its interpretation of some historical events. 

However, from his understanding of the law, he says the stickers themselves don't cross the line into illegally inciting hostility or violence against targeted people. He said the law in this area is "underdeveloped", but for the stickers to be illegal, they'd need to express vitriolic language.

"You have got to be careful when you start trying to ban things which are like that, which are objectionable as opposed to actually inciting violence. The list of what we all find objectionable could be a very long one," he says.

"At the moment, I do not think this is illegal under the law, I don't think it would cross the threshold.

Al Gillespie.
Al Gillespie. Photo credit: Newshub.

The New Zealand police took a similar view when questioned by Newshub about the stickers and whether they would be taken down.

"Speaking generally, we can say that we are aware that the actions of some groups may be offensive or upsetting to some people, but this does [not] in itself necessarily make those actions unlawful," said a spokesperson.

While at the moment nothing can be done from a legal perspective, Gillespie says the review of hate speech law that Justice Minister Andrew Little has called for may possibly lead to the group's language one day becoming outlawed. A report is expected to come out on that at the end of the year.

"We are going to debate that law towards the end of this year with regards to new hate speech and at that point, there is going to be a question about whether this group and what they are doing, will or won't they be allowed to do what they are doing in the future," Gillespie says.

Stuart McCutcheon.
Stuart McCutcheon. Photo credit: University of Auckland.

Debate at the University of Auckland

On the UoA campus, some students have called on management to get the material pulled down. But it's vice-Chancellor Stuart McCutcheon says his hands were tied.

"The stickers themselves aren't illegal... The particular posters I have seen... are not of themselves hate speech, they are not illegal, they are not inciting people to violence," McCutcheon told the university's student magazine, Craccum.

"I tend to have the view that we should promote free speech wherever we can.

"I know some people go from those posters to [the group's website] and form a view that it's a right-wing or white supremacist group and they may well be right. But [the group] are... not illegal, and so I tend to the view that we should promote free speech wherever we can."

Gabriella Brayne, who designed posters calling UoA out for not pulling the stickers down, told Newshub that the university needs to uphold its equity policy which says it opposes discrimination.

"Whilst the white supremacist organisation has been careful to not include anything that may legally amount to ‘hate speech’ in their public platforms, their racist agenda is clear," she says.

"We need to be highly critical of how freedom of speech actually operates within our society given that Aotearoa is rife with inequity.

"Institutions of influence have a right to ensure that their spaces are safe and fair for all to engage with and should not shy away from condemning/shutting down rhetoric that is discriminative and harmful."

Gillespie said the university was in a difficult spot of balancing the safety of staff and students with being a place of robust debate.

A posted made by Brayne.
A posted made by Brayne. Photo credit: Supplied.

Responding to objectionable views

Instead of ripping the stickers down, Gillespie believes people should be debating "objectionable" views.

"The best defence against people like this, not those who are inciting violence but those who are objectionable, the best defence is to bring them into the light and to debate them and to have more information and more vigorous to and fro between the opposing side," he says. 

"The university students should be trying to get these people into the open and confront them that way, that is their best defence.

"If you push them into the shadows, it is going to make them into martyrs and it will make them more popular in the eyes of certain people."

ACT Party leader David Seymour told Newshub earlier this week that censorship isn't the answer.

"The way to deal with objectionable material is not censorship but debate in an open society, especially on university campuses," he says.

"Stand up for freedom of expression so that bad ideas can be rejected by sunlight rather than censored where they will tend to fester underground."

Ben Elley, an expert in online extremism, says he doesn't believe the group is trying to radicalise people and those looking to join probably already hold "reasonably extreme beliefs".

Instead of creating debate, he advises starving the group of attention and not giving into what they want.

"[The stickers are] an oblique reference to stuff that is pretty concerning, but it's not really something, you know, we can't rip down everything that says something that is suggestive of something bad," Elley told Newshub.

"I think people need to be aware of what is behind their rhetoric and the ideas that they are really espousing and I suppose bringing that into the light of day might be good, but for the most part, it is best not to engage with them too much.

"We empower them by getting worked up by them... They want people to be afraid of them and angry at them."

He says the group fits an alt-right mould of using "publicly acceptable terms" to masquerade more extreme views.

"This is something you see quite a lot from groups like that and this is something you see discussed on alt-right forums as a way of escaping detection."

But while he calls the beliefs they express on their website implicitly violent, he doubts the group is "going to commit any acts of violence themselves". Gillespie also says the group doesn't currently warrant being of major concern.

"On the spectrum of groups that I am most concerned about, they are not on the warning level. I think they are offensive and I think they are playing a difficult dance," he told Newshub.

The group's website shows members - who have their faces pixelated - out on environmental activities and paying tribute at war memorials. Gillespie says it's difficult to pinpoint exactly what they stand for, but it is a mixture of right-wing nationalism and left-wing environmentalism.

More than 1000 staff members at UoA have written an open letter denouncing racism and white supremacy at the university. The university has responded praising the letter, saying it symbolises the freedom of expression the institution encourages.

The group has been contacted for comment.