Israel Folau fallout: No need for stronger hate speech laws - Paula Bennett

Paula Bennett is backing Jacinda Ardern's reluctance to brand a rugby player's anti-gay comments as hate speech.

Israel Folau earlier this month made headlines when he said gay people will go to hell, unless they "repent their sins". He's an Australian, but is married to a Silver Fern - Maria Folau - who's backed his homophobia.

The Prime Minister at the weekend said she disagreed with Mr Folau's comments, but was "very cautious" about calling it hate speech, adding that she's seen no "momentum" to make it a crime.

"You know the old saying: 'I may not like what you're saying but I'll defend your right to say it.'"

Ms Bennett told The AM Show on Monday she wasn't sure if she'd defend Mr Folau's right to say anything, but strengthening hate speech laws to cover comments like Folau's would be "a step too far".

"Do we really want to go down that path where we're monitoring everything that anyone says because we find it objectionable or repugnant?"

She said someone in Mr Folau's position should consider the effect his views might have on young people.

"Young people are going through changes and thinking about their sexuality, and he might be someone they look up to. To hear something like that I think can have a chilling effect on them.

"If there's any of them out there listening, I want them to know that there's a whole lot of us who just go, 'Good luck whoever you are, and whoever you may fall in love with is perfectly acceptable. It doesn't matter. We just wish you lots of love and a good life.'"

Paula Bennett.
Paula Bennett. Photo credit: The AM Show

The Human Rights Act section 61 protects against hate speech directed at people on the basis of "colour, race or ethnic or national origins", but not sexual orientation. The part of the Act which deals in sexual harassment - section 62 - doesn't cover speech.  

"I'm not sure I do respect his right to say something like that when it could be extremely harmful to some people out there who don't quite have the maturity to see it as one person's view," said Ms Bennett.

"But as far as there being laws or anything like that, I think that's a step too far and not something I would support."

The Human Rights Commission last year said it didn't want a widening of the Act to cover more views as hate speech, fearing free speech was under threat - particularly at universities.

Former Labour and National leaders Andrew Little and Bill English both said last year there was no need for law changes.

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