Videos On Homosexuality: Free Speech Or Hate Speech?

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:13 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - More than two years after a New Zealand appeals court overturned a ban on two U.S.-made Christian videos on homosexuality, lawmakers in the country are pushing to outlaw material they see as promoting "hate speech."

In a move called "sinister" by critics, a parliamentary committee has produced a report recommending that censors be given wider authority to ban material they feel is "injurious to the public good."

It called for the amendment of legislation to broaden the type of material that may be considered "objectionable" by movie and publication censors.

The report bases much of its argument on a 2000 Court of Appeal ruling that allowed a company called Living Word Distributors to distribute two videos on homosexuality.

The movies tackled issues such as the links between homosexual acts and AIDS transmission and irresponsible sexual behavior by homosexuals; questioned concepts like "safe sex"; and investigated the homosexual lobby's political agenda.

Censors initially approved them with an R18 restriction, but homosexual activists complained, and a censorship review board subsequently banned them altogether.

The board said the movies portrayed homosexuals and people suffering from AIDS as "inherently inferior," contained misinformation and "went beyond mere advocacy of an opinion."

After a long legal battle, the ban was overturned in 2000 by the Court of Appeal.

The relevant legislation targets material deemed injurious to the public good in five areas - sex, violence, horror, crime or cruelty.

The appeals judges said the censors had exceeded their jurisdiction by banning the two movies, because the material did not fall within the specified criteria.

Press reports from the time show that opinions were divided, with some opponents of the films saying the "hate" element outweighed freedom of expression considerations, while others said the censors had undervalued the importance of free speech.

The country's chief censor, Bill Hastings, was critical of the appeal court ruling, saying in his office's annual report it tied the censors' hands in cases where material treated "a group of the public as inherently inferior."

Critics say Hastings, who is homosexual, has been pushing hard to have the law changed so that material seen as politically incorrect may also be deemed objectionable.

"The unanimous ruling of the Court of Appeal quashing the ban [on the videos] has irked Mr. Hastings and led him to make repeated calls for a law change," said the Society for the Promotion of Community Standards, an organization that was involved in the appeal case.

Now the parliament's "government administration" committee is also pushing to have the law amended.

The committee, chaired by Labor lawmaker Dianne Yates, said that the appeal court decision had been "unacceptable" because it had the effect of allowing the expression of "hate speech."

The report said the committee believed the law needed to be amended "to regain its focus of preventing 'harm' and to acknowledge the changing social values in our society."

'Robust debate essential in free society'

A leading critic, lawmaker Stephen Franks of the conservative ACT Party, said the 2000 court decision had "protected free speech against politically correct censors."

The committee's report that seeks to overturn it was "sinister" and a "disgrace" to parliament, he said, adding that "hate speech" was the term used to demonize views people did not want to have to debate.

Franks called for all parties to shun the report and ensure it gets "a hasty burial."

Another critic of the report is the Maxim Institute, a secular public policy group in New Zealand.

In a statement, it expressed concern about the move toward embracing the concept of "hate speech."

"Incitement to murder, vandalism, rape and assault have all been crimes for a long time, and all are, or should be, punished accordingly. They are adequately covered by the law already.

" 'Hate speech' legislation gives special protection to selected groups," Maxim said. "It makes some people more valuable in the eyes of the law than others."

The institute said a democratic, free society had to allow robust debate.

Also voicing concern was David Lane of Society for the Promotion of Community Standards, which played a key role in the appeal case.

He said Wednesday the proposals could have a far-reaching effect on civil liberties and freedom of expression in the country.

If the recommended amendments were made, Lane said, in the future it could be illegal, for example, to criticize certain controversial aspects of Islam

"Our view is, we want a robust society where people can freely express their views" about issues like terrorism and other faiths or lifestyles.

Lane said existing defamation laws and a Human Rights Commission already provided adequate protection should anyone "overstep the line" in the exercise of their freedom of expression.

According to a parliamentary spokesman, the government generally has 90 days to respond to recommendations from select committees.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow