Thursday, April 04, 2013

The return of criminal libel

Back in the dark ages, when spousal rape was legal and homosexuality was a crime, there was a criminal offence in this country of "criminal libel". Publishing material "designed to insult any person or likely to injure his reputation by exposing him to hatred, contempt and ridicule" wasn't just a matter for defamation lawyers; it was a crime punishable by two years imprisonment. The law was clearly incompatible with the Bill of Rights Act (not to mention with modern ideas about defamation being a tort), and so it was repealed in 1992.

Now Judith Collins wants to bring it back - but only on the internet. Her proposals to deal with cyber-bullying (the culmination of the Law Commission's appalling work on the subject) include

an offence to send messages and post material online that was grossly offensive, indecent, obscene, menacing or knowingly false, punishable by up to three months imprisonment or a $2000 fine.

The prohibition on posting "knowingly false" material isn't aimed at climate change deniers and online advertisers, but rather at protecting people from false allegations i.e. being defamed. So, if you accuse someone of being a child molester in anonymous letters stuffed in letterboxes, its defamation and a tort. Post it online and its a crime and jail. Clearly, "doing it on the internet" is an aggravating factor, at least in the minds of the elderly technophobes now running the government.

(As for the "grossly offensive, indecent, [or] obscene" bit, this seems to go well beyond the current standards in the Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act 1993 to allow censorship of a far wider range of material, but only online. Freedom of expression? Apparently the internet is itself a reason for limiting it, or something...)

This law is not needed. The government is already proposing extending the Harassment Act 1997 to cover cyberspace, and that seems sufficient to address any actual harm. The proposals go well beyond that, and run the risk of rolling back twenty years of progress on freedom of speech. We should not tolerate it.