The New South Wales Parliament has just passed strengthened hate speech laws which will make it a criminal offence to “publicly threaten or incite violence” on the grounds of race, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex or HIV/AIDS status with penalties of up to three years imprisonment or an $11,000 fine.
The new laws were only proposed by the NSW Attorney-General Mark Speakman earlier this month who said when announcing them that “People who incite violence are a threat to community safety” adding that if people exercising their free speech “cross the line into threatening and inciting violence they will not go unpunished”. They passed with the support of the Labor Party. Speakman said after its passage they were committed to “dismantling significant barriers to prosecuting appalling and often vile actions of those who’d incite violence and police will now investigate these offences from the very beginning”.
The laws had lobbied for by the Keep New South Wales Safe Alliance, a coalition of 31 community organisations. Their spokesperson Vic Alhadeff who is also a member of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies said he was “exhilarated” by the passing of the laws and that “The NSW Government to its credit has identified that gap in the legislation and has put together a law which navigates very carefully between freedom of speech and the right not to be subjected to violence.
The justification for these laws was that no one had been prosecuted under existing anti-discrimination laws and laws against racial vilification which had been in place since 1989. The new hate speech laws are widely seen as the response to the posters that have popped up around Australia against Jews and gays put up by the elusive neo-Nazi group Antipodean Resistance which exists online and has allegedly held training camps in regional Australia.
The posters were condemned by all politicians, commentators and members of the public however free speech advocates expressed concern about how these laws targeted especially at these posters would be applied in practice. As has been the case with 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act legitimate debate about critical public policy issues could shut down because of these laws and the ensuring chilling effect that has on other people speaking.
Inciting violence could be interpreted quite liberally by the office of public prosecutions and the judiciary. Even if a person is cleared eventually of breaking such laws as is the case in our legal system the process is the punishment. If these laws were in place last year they certainly would have restricted debate during the Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey.
The fact that Liberal/National Coalition appears to have gone from supporting free speech and attempting to repeal 18C to now leading the nation in enacting new hate speech laws without much scrutiny during its passage is a concerning development