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Stephen Fry, blasphemy and New Zealand law

Stephen Fry. Photo/Getty Images

British comedian Stephen Fry got caught up in a police investigation after describing God on Irish TV in 2015 as “capricious, mean-minded [and] stupid” for causing so much injustice and pain in the world.

This could have earnt Fry a fine of up to NZ$39,000. But police dropped investigations this week when they couldn’t find enough people to be outraged. Ireland has agreed to hold a referendum on removing its blasphemy ban.

In New Zealand, the crime of blasphemous libel is covered by the Crimes Acts 1961 and carries a maximum penalty of a year in prison. There has been only one charge, in 1922, after John Glover, publisher of the Maoriland Worker, printed Siegfried Sassoon’s poem Stand-to: Good Friday Morning. The Supreme Court jury returned a verdict of not guilty, with a rider that “similar publications of such literature be discouraged”.

In 1998, MP John Banks and Catholic priest Denzil Meuli called on the Crown to prosecute Te Papa for displaying Tania Kovats’ Virgin in a Condom and Sam Taylor-Wood’s Wrecked. Solicitor-General John McGrath refused, arguing that freedom of expression, safeguarded by New Zealand’s Bill of Rights, was more important.

Act party leader David Seymour failed in his bid to table a bill to repeal our blasphemy laws, but there is widespread agreement across the political spectrum that we should.

University of Otago law professor Andrew Geddis says, “The idea of blasphemy laws was to say anyone disparaging God was undermining the social fabric. That idea is long gone. To bring such charges is inconsistent with ideas of freedom of expression in a modern democracy.”

The repeal of our blasphemy laws is now likely to be considered under the Statutes Repeal Bill.

This article was first published in the May 20, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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