Hate speech laws: Government proposes one change to Human Rights Act after years of divisive debate

After years of divisive policy debate, six proposals and thousands of submissions, the Government has finally released its new hate speech law proposal - making just one change to the Human Rights Act.

It comes after Newshub revealed on Friday the Government was watering down its proposed hate speech laws as they were too controversial to be palatable.

The Government would make one amendment to the hate speech laws to include religious communities. However, it hasn't ruled out extending it further to other groups in the future.

The Government's plan to create new hate speech laws came as part of a response to the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the 2019 Christchurch terror attack. They were supposed to be ready a lot earlier but were delayed because of confusion and "strong feedback", causing the Government to give them a rethink. 

After extensive consultation, with more than 19,000 submissions on six proposals, the Government announced on Newshub Nation on Saturday it will make one change to address incitement towards religious communities while asking for further work to be done alongside a wider range of groups going forward.

"New Zealanders were horrified at the events that played out in Christchurch in March 2019 and we will never forget the 51 victims, the survivors and their loved ones who suffered an act of extreme hate, because of their religious belief," Justice Minister Kiri Allan said.

"Everybody in New Zealand deserves to be safe from this kind of violence. The Government will expand the existing legal protections that have been in place since 1993 to also include our religious communities through amendments to the Human Rights Act."

Currently, under the Human Rights Act, it is illegal to publish or distribute threatening, abusive, or insulting words likely to "excite hostility against" or "bring into contempt" to any group on the grounds of colour, race, ethnic or national origins. The changes will extend this to cover religious beliefs.

"This change will protect more groups from harm and strengthen social cohesion in Aotearoa New Zealand," Allan said.

Speaking to Rebecca Wright on Newshub Nation, Allan said the Government is balancing protecting vulnerable communities and the right to freedom of speech, which she said countries around the world are too grappling with.

"These are small amendments that the Royal Commission have said will have a large benefit for our religious-based communities," Allan said.

Last year, the Government released a discussion document outlining six key proposals that intended to strengthen protections against speech inciting hatred or discrimination and wanted to see more groups protected.

The Government at the time said it didn't believe the law was clear enough in noting that trans, gender diverse and intersex people are also protected from discrimination.

It said the final proposal would make changes to clarify this by changing the wording of the ground of "sex" to include "sex characteristics or intersex status" and adding a new ground of "gender including gender expression and gender identity".

But Allan told Newshub Nation this proposal has not yet gone further to include other vulnerable groups such as the rainbow community, because the Government can't ensure the changes wouldn't further expose communities to harm.

"I can't hand over heart say that if we were to introduce further laws in this area that they would be well held by New Zealanders and not create more harm."

"I can't hand over heart say that if we were to introduce further laws in this area that they would be well held by New Zealanders and not create more harm."
"I can't hand over heart say that if we were to introduce further laws in this area that they would be well held by New Zealanders and not create more harm." Photo credit: Newshub Nation

The Government has asked Te Aka Matua o te Ture, The Law Commission, to carry out an independent review of legal responses to hate-motivated offending and hate speech against people who share a common characteristic. This will include whether further protections should be afforded to specific groups, including the rainbow and disabled communities.

"These issues are complicated and the review will ensure any further changes to the incitement provisions meet society's expectations and needs," said Allan in a statement.

"As demonstrated many times previously, such as with abortion law, the Law Commission is well-equipped to take on a complex and sensitive issue, and carefully consider how the law should be shaped in response to it."

Allan said a Bill will be introduced and is intended to be passed to make specific changes to the Act regarding religious beliefs. It will be subject to a full Select Committee process.

"Until the Law Commission has done that work, there will be no changes to the definition of groups protected from discrimination, or any changes to how the existing legal regime against incitement operates in terms of thresholds, offences or penalties, as originally proposed.

"Some of the debate on this topic over the last year has been disappointing and at times deliberately divisive and misleading, particularly in regard to the proposals that were out for consultation. This is not, and never has been, about the Government wanting to restrict free speech.

"Given this is a targeted change aimed at tackling an immediate gap identified by the Royal Commission, I hope to see all parties across Parliament consider their position on the legislation carefully and responsibly."

Watch Newshub Nation 9:30am Saturday/10am Sunday on TV3, and follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Newshub Nation is supported by NZ On Air.