Defending freedom of speech in new online hate series

16 September 2022

A staunch defender of freedom of speech, University of Canterbury (UC) Media Law expert Professor Ursula Cheer is calling for caution when creating new hate-speech legislation in the web series Community of Strangers launched this week.

  • Professor Ursula Cheer

    Professor Ursula Cheer says new online hate speech laws must strike the right balance “so as not to over or under protect” people commenting online. She was one of the experts consulted for the new web series Community of Strangers exploring online hate and extremism in Aotearoa.

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Professor Cheer joins five other experts, including UC Sociology Professor Mike Grimshaw, to explore cyber hate, radicalization, extremism and freedom of speech. With Aotearoa New Zealand’s far-right extremist Facebook pages featuring more followers per capita than the UK, USA and Australia, these are conversations that communities, schools and experts need to be having.

Professor Cheer was contacted by the Community of Strangers team due to her years of expertise in media law. “I have been following and commenting on the proposals for change to our hate speech laws and saw this as an opportunity to help inform the community of the complexities involved,” she says. “I also wanted to offer my thoughts on the need for educational changes to improve social cohesion in New Zealand following the terrible mosque shootings.”

Professor Cheer urges caution in how hate speech is defined and penalised because “many people are very casual about how they use social media and do not realise the potential for harm resulting from online publishing. But this does not make them bad people or people who should be criminalised. What they need is education about online responsibility.”

While it is tempting to think that laws can solve problems, underlying societal problems often need to be addressed, she says. In her video interview for Community of Strangers, Professor Cheer calls for secondary school education on technology, racism and different world religions from year 11 onwards.   

In an increasingly divided online world, “we need more diversity of opinion, and we need people to listen to all opinions and beliefs with maturity and respect. You can do this without accepting and adopting viewpoints you don’t agree with. This is really about learning to listen rather than speak.  It is a crucial part of freedom of expression.

“Freedom of expression is about being able to speak, but also being able to seek out and receive expression of any kind, so long as harm to others does not result.”

Community of Strangers is a partnership project between Lady Khadija Trust, NZ and Telling Lives. The project ‘Community of Strangers’ seeks to explore the underpinnings of both bias and belonging within our species by providing an understanding of our evolutionary pre-disposition to favour those most similar to us. Phase one of ‘Community of Strangers’ explores the corrosive impact of cyber hate and its destabilising impact on freedom of expression and trust in New Zealand and is funded by InternetNZ. 

Watch Professor Cheer’s video here.  

Media contact:

  • Email: media@canterbury.ac.nz Ph: (03) 369 3631 or 027 503 0168
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