Sunday, September 19, 2004

Blasphemy and sedition

Generally I think of New Zealand as an overwhelmingly secular and liberal democracy. So I was shocked when a press release from the NZ Association of Rationalists and Humanists pointed out that blasphemy is still a crime here.

"Blasphemy" is speaking of god irreverently or "impiously". It is banned by section 123 of the Crimes Act 1961, which provides for a penalty of up to one year's imprisonment for anyone who publishes "any blasphemous libel". While it has a "good faith" defence, and requires the leave of the Attorney-General in order to prosecute, it still fundamentally seeks to punish people for expressing views on the subject of religion which offend or do not meet with the approval of self-appointed "religious authorities" (such as John Banks, for example).

This is an archaic law, which has absolutely no place in a modern, secular, liberal democracy. It is almost certainly inconsistent with sections 13 - 15 of the Bill of Rights, which guarantee freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, freedom of expression (the right to "seek, receive, and impart information and opinions of any kind in any form"), and manifestation of religion and belief. While it has only been used once (in 1921), and is unlikely to be used again (unless United Future becomes the government), its mere presence on our books is repugnant. It should be repealed immediately.

And while I'm on the subject of stupid, archaic laws which have no place in our modern, secular, liberal democratic state, check out sections 81 - 85, which define the "crimes" of "seditious conspiracy", "seditious statements", "publication of seditious documents" and "use of apparatus for making seditious documents or statements". These are all focused around criminalising speech which might

bring into hatred or contempt, or to excite disaffection against, Her Majesty, or the Government of New Zealand, or the administration of justice.

or which incites or encourages "violence, lawlessness, or disorder" (among other things). While there is again a "good faith" defence, the whole purpose of the law is repugnant. It is not about criminal acts, but about criminalising speech. Unless that speech is akin to crying "fire" in a crowded theatre, such laws cannot be justified. Our laws against sedition should join that against blasphemy in the dustbin of history, where they belong.