Action needed to protect more people from hate

person at a desk using a laptop


2 November 2022

Action needed to protect more people from the incitement of hatred

Hateful content online is recognised as a significant issue in Aotearoa New Zealand. There are already laws in place that aim to address it, but gaps mean that they are not protecting people they need to.

Our legislation prohibiting the incitement of hatred and discrimination is not fit for purpose. Currently the groups of people that the law seeks to protect are limited: it does not, for example, protect people from incitement on the grounds of belonging to religious, disability or LGBTQIA+ communities. The criminal legislation also doesn’t cover the incitement of hatred communicated electronically, such as over email.

This is important because the harm that arises from hateful content online is real. It is severe. And it has consequences. The case of Russell Hoban is a shocking example of what can happen when the gaps in our current law let people down.

"Addressing this harm is about building a society we all want to be a part of – one that we all feel safe to participate in, which is based on respect, understanding and connection with each other."

The fear for one’s safety, or that of a loved one, can not only create enormous distress and anxiety, but can cause people to withdraw from society – in other words, silencing them. When individuals and groups are prevented from safely going about their lives, when people cannot safely stand up for their rights and interests, the chilling impact cannot be overstated. 

In 2017, Amnesty International surveyed 500 women in Aotearoa New Zealand. One third said that they had experienced online abuse. Of that number, around half said that they feared for their physical safety and about a third feared for the physical safety of their family as a result of the online harassment.

women point at a laptop

When talking about the ways to address hateful online content, people are often concerned about the right to freedom of expression.

"Freedom of expression is a vital right, but it is not an absolute right."

This means that it can and must be balanced with the rights of others – a fact that is acknowledged under international human rights law and in our own domestic legislation. Indeed, as a society we already do this balancing act in a number of areas, for example, in our defamation law. However, limitations on the freedom of expression cannot be for anything: they must meet a test that includes evidence that the limitation is necessary and proportional. As described by the United Nations, “any restrictions must be an exception and seek to prevent harm and ensure equality or the public participation of all.” 

In essence, the right to freedom of expression must be carefully balanced with other human rights in order to create a society where everyone can thrive.


Addressing the gaps in Aotearoa New Zealand’s current legislative framework will be key to reducing the harm caused by hateful content online. But the Government must do more to address the root causes of racism, prejudice and intolerance. Legislative reform to address these gaps is a necessary part of the jigsaw as it helps to prevent the conditions that give rise to harassment, threats, discrimination and violence. At the same time, however, we must recognise that the effective protection and social inclusion of all people requires broader work, including the full and proper recognition of TeTiriti o Waitangi.

It is critical that Government, and all of us, takes action to ensure that everyone can live freely and expressively. Everyone must be able to actively participate without fear of attacks to themselves, their whānau or their communities.

We look forward to seeing the details of the new legislation and to furthering this vision of Aotearoa New Zealand.