Yesterday a Christchurch man was sentenced to 21 months in jail for disseminating the video posted to Facebook by the perpetrator of the March Mosque attacks. His conviction has raised issues and questions about hate speech and free speech and the rights of individuals or groups to exercise what rights we have to communicate beliefs, views, and opinions. This topic has gathered huge momentum since the March terrorist attacks, though in truth it has always been a hotly contested element of every ‘free thinking’ democracy.

In New Zealand the right to freedom of expression is contained within the Bill of Rights Act (1990) – that says, “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, including the right to seek, receive, and impart information and opinions of any kind in any form”. That establishes the right but the Act then makes provisions that limit that ‘freedom’: respect the rights and reputations of others; and protect national security, public order, or public health and morals.”

“There are other provisions within that Act, as well as the Crimes Act that safeguard us from what is defined, and is then interpreted by our courts as ‘hate speech.’

The Human Rights Act (1993) also marks limitations of that freedom of expression by setting out the parameters of hate speech. Section 61 states: “to publish or distribute written matter which is threatening, abusive, or insulting, or to broadcast by means of radio or television or other electronic communication words which are threatening, abusive, or insulting.”

There are other provisions within that Act, as well as the Crimes Act that safeguard us from what is defined, and is then interpreted by our courts as ‘hate speech.’ I would say that in the case of Philip Arps, the man convicted for sending the Facebook video to others, in one case asking for the addition of a target and a ‘kill score’, the legislation does its job well. His defence that this action – as well as him delivering a pig’s head to the Al Noor Mosque a few years ago – is an exercise of his freedom of speech is just not right.

“It is often a subject we will disagree on, even with close friends and family, because we may share a species but we are very, very different in our lived experiences and our opinions and beliefs.”

But where we draw that line is often contentious – and protecting the right to free speech is a vital element of our democracy. It is often a subject we will disagree on, even with close friends and family, because we may share a species but we are very, very different in our lived experiences and our opinions and beliefs. Some would argue that all speech should be permissible, without restriction – others would impose even greater limitations than we already have.

“I may not agree with you, but I will defend to the death your right to make an ass of yourself.”

Books are filled with prescient and pithy observations on the freedom of speech. Benjamin Franklin wrote “Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freeness of speech.” Perhaps one of the most enduring quotes is “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” (Attributed to Voltaire). This quote is enforced with comical emphasis by Oscar Wilde – “I may not agree with you, but I will defend to the death your right to make an ass of yourself.”

Like it or not, we are surrounded by the utterings of people we disagree with. It’s inescapable – it always has been, and it always will be. The difference inherent within human beings guarantees it. I firmly believe in the right to freely express what we think – it’s the cornerstone of our – and many other – democracies – but I also believe there is no place for that to promote hatred, abuse and harm upon others. I do, however, understand that the definitions of intolerable speech are not absolute. I also cherish the fact that we live in a country where these discussions are ones we can freely have, that we are not constrained to discuss them, that they will also evolve,