Hate Speech - What is it?

The term ‘hate speech’ does not appear in any New Zealand legislation. A general definition could be:

Any form of communication that is threatening, abusive or insulting to a serious degree against a group or a member of a group on the basis of a shared characteristic of that group such as religion, national origin, skin colour, race, etc.

Human Rights Act 1993

Although no New Zealand legislation contains the term ‘hate speech’, there are a number that deal with the concept. The Human Rights Act 1993 makes it an offence to publish something or say something in public which is threatening, abusive or insulting against a group of people on the basis of their colour, race, or ethnic or national origins.

However what is published or said also needs to be likely to incite hostility against the group. In 2013, two cartoons featuring negative depictions of Māori and Pasifika were published in local New Zealand newspapers. The court found that they were disparaging to Māori or Pasifika but were not likely to incite hostility against these groups of people. Because of this, it was found that the publication of the cartoons was not an offence.

Harmful Digital Communications Act 2015

The Harmful Digital Communications Act 2015 addresses hate speech that occurs online. It is an offence to post a digital communication with the intention to cause harm to someone or where it is likely the post will cause harm to someone. This includes where a digital communication insults an individual on the basis of their colour, race, ethnic or national origins, religion, gender, sexual orientation or disability.

This act has been more utilised than the Human Rights Act for complaints of hate speech. In its first five years of being in force, more than 500 people had been charged under the Harmful Digital Communications Act and Netsafe has received nearly 14,000 complaints through the act.

Under the act, an individual can be fined up to $50,000 or get up to two years in jail for sending a harmful digital communication with the penalty depending on the nature of the communication. For example, in 2015, a man was sentenced to 9 months in prison after he sent a sexual video of his ex-partner to his ex-partner’s mother. In 2020, a man was ordered to refrain from publishing content after he sent out flyers and published a blog post about the owners of a landscaping business after he had a bad experience with them.

The law on hate speech in New Zealand is still relatively new and underdeveloped.

Best advice – if in doubt, don’t say it.