Bill Ralston: In defence of free speech

by Bill Ralston / 13 April, 2019
Illustration/Getty Images

Illustration/Getty Images

RelatedArticlesModule - Free speech

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.

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.

Latest

Medical specialist and writer Eileen Merriman's prescription for success
104920 2019-04-25 00:00:00Z Profiles

Medical specialist and writer Eileen Merriman's pr…

by Clare de Lore

Eileen Merriman doesn’t have to dig too deep to find the angst, humour and drama for her award-winning novels.

Read more
We still remember them: The best in new Anzac Day reading
105020 2019-04-25 00:00:00Z Books

We still remember them: The best in new Anzac Day…

by Russell Baillie

The tide of great New Zealand books on the world wars shows no sign of going out. Russell Baillie reviews four new Anzac books.

Read more
Fine lines: New Anzac books and graphic novels for kids
105028 2019-04-25 00:00:00Z Books

Fine lines: New Anzac books and graphic novels for…

by Ann Packer

A telegraph “boy”, heroic animals and even shell-shock make for engaging reads for children.

Read more
Keeping up appearances: The challenging job of restoring NZ's lighthouses
104978 2019-04-25 00:00:00Z Life in NZ

Keeping up appearances: The challenging job of res…

by Fiona Terry

Ensuring lighthouses stay “shipshape” isn’t a job for the faint-hearted.

Read more
The former major reuniting service medals with their rightful owners
105015 2019-04-25 00:00:00Z Life in NZ

The former major reuniting service medals with the…

by Fiona Terry

Service medals are being reunited with their rightful owners thanks to former major Ian Martyn and his determined research.

Read more
PM announces 'Christchurch Call' to end use of social media for terrorism
104952 2019-04-24 00:00:00Z Politics

PM announces 'Christchurch Call' to end use of soc…

by Noted

A meeting aims to see world leaders and CEOs of tech companies agree to a pledge called the ‘Christchurch Call’.

Read more
Red Joan: Judi Dench almost saves Soviet spy story from tedium
104942 2019-04-24 00:00:00Z Movies

Red Joan: Judi Dench almost saves Soviet spy story…

by James Robins

The fictionalised account of a British woman who spied for the Soviet Union is stiflingly quaint.

Read more
What to watch on TV this Anzac Day
104749 2019-04-24 00:00:00Z Television

What to watch on TV this Anzac Day

by Fiona Rae

Māori TV once again devotes the day to Anzac programming, including a live broadcast from Gallipoli.

Read more