Sir Bob Jones might not be racist, but he writes like he is

Sir Bob Jones’ racist diatribe against Maori, and the response calling for him to be stripped of his knighthood and prosecuted for hate speech raise big questions about the role of free speech in New Zealand society.

To start with, it is important to remember that New Zealand doesn’t have ‘hate speech’ per se in its laws – rather, there are provisions which cover aspects of this behaviour. A central piece of this legislative puzzle is s 61 of the Human Rights Act 1993, relating to racial disharmony. The relevant part refers to ‘threatening, abusive or insulting’ written matter, which is ‘likely to excite hostility … on the ground of the colour, race, or ethnic or national origins.’

It is a cliché that one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter – and the same applies here: what is viewed as hate speech by one person may be thought of as simply a strong opinion by another.

This takes us to the heart of this problem. New Zealanders must not incite racial disharmony, but at the same time, must respect the right of free speech. The NZ Bill of Rights Act 1990 states at s 14 that ‘everyone has the right to freedom of expression, including the freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and opinions of any kind in any form’. Public authorities, including the Police, have a duty to protect those legal rights, which exist in a sometimes tense relationship.

Freedom of expression forms a central part of international human rights law. Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights holds that everyone has the right to hold and impart their opinions without interference.

The freedom to think and speak is the very ‘stuff’ that we are made of – the human condition. The way we as a race, dream, develop and advance. Think of the great leaps forward that freedom of speech has delivered – in thought and act. It is the lifeblood of a democracy – it is what we are about as a nation.

All this is not to condone Sir Bob Jones’ comments. The freedom to express oneself does not carry with it an obligation to agree with any given opinion. Racism, colonialism and other uninformed opinions should always be recognised as such. However, to leap to calling such comment ‘hate speech’ is a step too far. Likewise, calls for Bob Jones to be stripped of his knighthood are reactionary and ill-conceived

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Thomas Harré

Barrister, LawAid International