Jacinda Ardern dismisses concerns from ACT hate speech laws will put 'cancel culture on steroids'

The Government revealed six proposals on Friday.
The Government revealed six proposals on Friday. Photo credit: Getty Images.

The Prime Minister is dismissing concerns from the ACT Party that proposed changes to hate speech laws will put "cancel culture on steroids". 

The Government on Friday unveiled details of its proposed changes to New Zealand's hate speech laws. Among the six proposals is to protect more groups against speech that incites hatred and create a new criminal offence. 

It's part of a wider programme of work to "strengthen social cohesion", especially in response to the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Christchurch terror attack .

"Building social cohesion, inclusion and valuing diversity can also be a powerful means of countering the actions of those who seek to spread or entrench discrimination and hatred," Justice Minister Kris Faafoi said on Friday.

But ACT's David Seymour said the proposals are "a huge win for cancel culture and will create an even more divided society", asking what sort of government "promotes social cohesion by having the state go around punishing people for unpopular views?"

"This is a solution looking for a problem and will take away basic rights to free speech, it will shut down debate and make people too afraid to express valid opinions. It will put cancel culture on steroids."

As a result of the changes, Seymour expects police will face pressure to prosecute people with unpopular views.

"It will leave our already over stretched Police in a hopeless position. The last thing a brave and hardworking front-line cop wants to do is be weaponised into culture wars," he said. 

"The only people who win from today’s announcement are the Twitter mob and the perpetually offended."

On Friday morning, Faafoi said the Government wasn't targeting people who say "nasty things" to someone. 

"Nasty things are one thing, inciting hatred against a group are another thing."

The proposals are also focused on speech inciting hatred in other people towards a group, rather than towards one individual. 

"Abusive or threatening speech that incites hostility can cause significant harm and divide communities," the minister said.

"Protecting our right to freedom of expression while balancing that right with protections against 'hate speech' is something that requires careful consideration and a wide range of input."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the proposals, which are out for consultation until August 6,  will "absolutely not" put cancel culture on steroids.

"This is a direct response to some of the recent experiences New Zealand has had," she said.

"Keeping in mind there are already obligations that already exist in New Zealand based around, for instance, ethnicity, but there are just some areas where those provisions don't apply. 

"What we are asking in this discussion document is should those areas be extended to include, for instance, hate speech based on religion."

Seymour has also taken issue with the proposed new criminal offence's penalty settings.

The provision would "prohibit speech that maintains or normalises hatred, in addition, to speech that incites or stirs up hatred". The penalty would be a fine up to $50,000 or a maximum of three years in prison. 

"As it stands there are violence offences that carry a maximum sentence of two years in prison and [Faafoi's] Hate Speech Laws carry three years. That means you will get longer in jail for insulting than assaulting."

In the Crimes Act, common assault carries with it a maximum punishment of a year in prison while the top penalty for assault with intent to injure is three years.

In the discussion document released on Friday, the Government says it considered the penalties of other criminal offences. It highlighted several, such as the maximum penalty for disorderly behaviour being three months in prison or a $2000 fine, and the offence of threatening to kill or cause grievous bodily harm carrying a maximum period of imprisonment of seven years. Making or distributing an objectionable publication has a maximum penalty of 14 years in prison.