This week the NSW government revealed its consideration of a revision to hate speech laws. The existing criminalization of hate speech, implemented in 2018, has not led to a single conviction, which Premier Chris Minns sees it as a flaw in the legislation.
The issue of hate speech has gained prominence in recent weeks due to the aftermath of the extensive massacre of over 11,000 Palestinians in Gaza by the Israeli state. The Israeli government's intentions have been condemned, while Western allies observe without intervention.
This concern was brought to light when an antisemitic chant briefly broke out during a pro-Palestinian rally at the Sydney Opera House on October 9. The rally aimed to protest the premier's decision to project the Israeli flag onto the building in commemoration of the October 7 killing of over 1,300 Israelis by Hamas.
“We are concerned about recent media commentary suggesting that the Minns government is considering ‘tightening laws against hate speech’ based on lobbying undertaken by faith-based groups,” said NSW Council for Civil Liberties (NSWCCL) president Lydia Shelly.
The lawyer made clear in her 14 November statement that “speech that is controversial, that falls short of the current legal threshold, should not be criminalised. We already have criminal provisions outlawing the use of offensive language and prohibition against incitement to violence in NSW.”
Shelly added that divisive speech that continues to be legal should be “challenged, debated, or even ridiculed”. And this must take place in the media, as well as more generally in public, with these tactics being used to deal with such issues, rather than further criminalising the ability to use words.
As it stands in Australia, there is already a thorough counterterrorism framework established in law, and there’s still room within the polity to raise and deal with divisive topics and opinions, rather than simply attempting to silence those seeking to express diverging opinion.
The NSWCCL is calling on the Minns government to make any reports regarding a tightening of these laws publicly available, along with the minutes of meetings dealing with hate speech reform and the details of correspondence on the topic, as well as that involving any lobbying that takes place.
“If the legal threshold is lowered, it will not make faith communities any safer from a perceived risk of violence or the risk of actual violence occurring. Dragging people before the courts will not make communities safer,” Shelly recently warned.
“Instead, the lowering the threshold will potentially have a chilling effect on public discourse and perversely, make it difficult for police and intelligence organisations to monitor those who may plan to resort to violence,” she further said, in an attempt to pave a different way forward.
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