Free speech or Harmful Speech online

When does the right to be heard cross over with the right not to be harmed. A look at how expressing our opinions can lead to conflict, and how we can resolve it.


Photo by Mike Towber

The online world has become synonymous with robust conversations that sometimes become abusive. Many abusive comments are defended as free speech – but not every comment can be justified using that defence.

The NZ Bill of Rights Act (BORA) protects Freedom of Expression in section 14 “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, including the freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and opinions of any kind in any form.”

By and large, New Zealand internet users should not be afraid to express their opinions online. However, we must be aware that the person that we are expressing those opinions about (or to) also has rights that are protected by law.

Within the Bill of Rights Act, Freedom of Expression is balanced against a number of other rights. New Zealanders rights are then further defined by the Human Rights Act 1993, the Privacy Act 1993, and the Treaty of Waitangi.

As a simple summary, expressing an opinion is protected – but using that freedom to harm somebody else is much less so.

The Harmful Digital Communications Act provides new mechanisms to help people take action to reduce the harm caused by harmful digital communications. The Act sets out:

  • new measures to help people affected by harmful digital communications by providing access to an complaints agency and court ordered remedies; and
  • new criminal offences to penalise the most serious perpetrators.

At its core the Act lays out 10 communications principles which outline unacceptable ways to communicate.

They provide that communications should not be, for example, threatening, intimidating or menacing; grossly offensive; indecent or obscene; or denigrating of a person’s race, gender, sexual orientation or disability. The principles also encompass any encouragement for another person to create harmful communication.

If the posted content is an indication of wider discrimination, then you may be able to take a complaint to the Human Rights Commission. Your options are explained at the Human Rights Commission’s website

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