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Shouting abuse outside a mosque, 'racist' pamphlet and Israel Folau’s comments - what is hate speech?

Shouting abuse outside a mosque, a "racist" pamphlet and Israel Folau's recents comments - in light of recent examples, the term "hate speech" is still left undefined.

In the wake of the Christchurch terrorist attack, Justice Minister Andrew Little announced his intention to review hate speech laws, but in the meantime New Zealanders have not held back calling out objectionable utterances.

Barrister and legal commentator Graeme Edgeler explained the differences between three cases - a man shouting abuse outside a mosque, a "racist" pamphlet being dropped in Auckland mailboxes, and rugby player Israel Folau's controversial Instagram posts attacking homosexuals and others.

Mr Edgeler described all three of the examples as "broadly problematic", but the only one which could legally qualify as hate speech would be the man shouting hateful messages to Muslims outside the Al Noor Mosque in Christchurch last Wednesday.

"The type of speech that can really interfere with your ability to function in society, if someone is yelling quite fowl abuse at you outside your mosque ... that would be the sort of problem that that's what we try to avoid.

"People can say things but when they start affecting people's lives, that's the sort of thing that the law sometimes steps in and says "no it's not okay"," Mr Edgeler told TVNZ1's Breakfast.

However, the pamphlet could be a breach of advertising standards, and Folau's comments were an employment issue rather than something he could be criminally charged with, he said.

Mr Edgeler understood there was a complaint before the Advertising Standards Authority at the moment regarding the pamphlet, which he said was the appropriate action.

The group One Law for All sent out the pamphlets in Auckland's Point Chevalier, states that colonisation was good overall for Māori and that there is no such thing as a Treaty partnership. They call for the Waitangi Tribunal, Māori voting roll and Māori wards to be abolished.

If the ruling by the commission was that the pamphlet was okay, then the standards might need to be looked at, Mr Edgeler said, but "the idea that this is hate speech is probably going a bit far".

As for Folau, New Zealand laws are not able to stop anyone in Australia doing anything, but there might be employment law consequences for his posts, Mr Edgeler said.

The Wallabies player said on his Instagram account last week that "drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists and idolaters" have hell awaiting them unless they repent.

"That particular post though, mostly it was quotes from the bible and, sort of, a paraphrase of another quote from the bible," Mr Edgeler said. "We might strengthen our hate speech laws [but] I would be surprised if any changes we did make were such that it would be hate speech, criminal or civil hate speech, to stop people quoting the bible."

But people don't have to tolerate offensive speech, they can call him out, and many people had, he said.

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    Lawyer Graeme Edgeler talks through the three examples on TVNZ1’s Breakfast. Source: Breakfast