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Bill Ralston: In defence of free speech

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If we toughen our hate-speech laws, there’s a risk that critics will be forced underground.

For the benefit of Green MP Golriz Ghahraman and anyone else who is advocating a drastic extension to the law to ban “hate speech”, I’d like to point out that hate speech is not simply speech that you hate. It is, to paraphrase a multitude of different online definitions, a cruel and derogatory statement intended to demean and brutalise someone on the basis of their ethnic origin, country, sex, disability, religion or some other personal characteristic.

New Zealand already prohibits some hate speech under the Human Rights Act 1993, Section 61, and spells out such offences in Section 131. It is a little restricted because it specifies only exciting hostility or contempt of people on the grounds of colour, race or ethnic origins of that person or persons. You might be able to squeeze religion into a complaint to the Human Rights Commission, but it would be harder to work in such issues as gender and sexuality, although it could be done.

Being an old white man, I’m often offended by derogatory online references to old white men, and I hate that kind of speech, but, even though it touches on issues of age and race, it is not hate speech as such.

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In fact, I hate a lot of the opinions voiced on Twitter and in our news media. Some drive me crazy with rage, but I can choose not to follow a twitterer who offends me or read or listen to an annoying columnist.

UK writer Evelyn Beatrice Hall once wrote a line that is often misattributed to Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” I apply this principle to any publicly voiced opinion that I hate. It is called the right of free speech, so I grit my teeth and bear it.

Of course, there are limits on free speech and there are already laws that would see you in court for, say, advocating an act of violence against another person, group of people or their property. There are laws in a plethora of categories, such as race, sex and ethnicity, that prevent you discriminating against people in employment, housing and other areas. In short, we are surrounded by a wall of restrictions on free speech, so do we really need to make it taller?

Many of the advocates of “hate-speech” banning are simply folk who don’t agree with or like what another person is saying. They want to silence a critic or a dissenting voice that they oppose. But there is a real danger in forcing those critics underground. Free speech, such as we have, is a safety valve that can release as much if not more tension than the offending remarks create.

I can’t stand most of the opinions voiced by radio host Mike Hosking, and I like his demeanour even less, but his Newstalk ZB programme is the highest-rating commercial radio in the country. That means hundreds of thousands of people are prepared to listen to him, and so they should if they wish.

The spy agencies are likely to want tougher hate-speech laws if only because the police would then build up records on people worthy of Security Intelligence Service interest.

However, despite that one potential benefit, I strongly object to those who seek to use the recent tragic events in Christchurch to turn off the tap on freedom of expression.

This column was first published in the April 20, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.