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Hate speech bill is a minefield we can ill afford to fall into

25 January 2017 - 09:45 By The Times Editorial
Image: Supplied

This week's outcry and debate over homophobic comments made by Ghanaian preacher Dag Heward-Mills in a Johannesburg church blows the dust off a free-speech debate that is likely to dominate headlines in coming months.

The brouhaha coincided with a meeting between religious leaders and the justice department, which is pushing its draft Prevention and Combating of Hate Crimes and Hate Speech bill.

Both events tease out the tensions which exist in a society governed by a constitution and its protected rights, but in which religious conservatism is also a significant factor.

The hate speech bill is the minefield where all these factors are heading for an explosion.

Religious leaders at the meeting gave a taste of what is to come. Instead of distancing themselves from Heward-Mills's homophobic comments, they demanded the government roll back its efforts to curb hate speech.

How will the state respond to this?

Religious freedom and freedom of speech are entrenched in the constitution. Free speech only loses its protection in the narrowest of scenarios which relate mainly to inciting "imminent" violence, harm or war.

The hate speech bill goes much further. A person who is threatening or abusive, for example, and who merely intends to bring another person or group into ridicule or contempt, will be guilty of hate speech.

If promulgated in its current form, Heward-Mills could be imprisoned for his remarks on Sunday. Currently they would be protected free speech.

Repulsive as his comments might be to many, our society was not imagined by the drafters of our constitution as one that jails pastors for their sermons. Or journalists for their reporting. Or artists for their art.

We would rather live with discomfort and distaste for the views of others, and define our tolerance by the volume of our outrage, than under the umbrella of the hate speech bill as it stands now.