Unlike some countries, New Zealand does not have "hate crimes". Like them, we have hateful incidents through words or deeds unfortunately, but we do not give them a special significance in law. Should we?

It is a question being asked by police, justice, human rights and groups who can be hurt by hate-fuelled verbal and physical violation.

Physical violence is a crime against the individual regardless of whether it is motivated by malice towards an ethnic, religious or sexual group, and language can be a crime if it is likely to incite violence against a group. But it probably has to be a direct incitement, not just possibly raise the risk of violence.

Labour MP Louisa Wall tells us today she would like the law to go further with a "duty of care" added to the Bill of Rights Act, so people could be held accountable for their use of free speech. Accountability would depend on their influence and status in society.

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That seems to mean it would apply mainly to public figures, including celebrities, sporting figures, media commentators - in fact, anybody quoted in the media, for that alone might be considered influence in society.

Thomas Beagle, chair of the Council for Civil Liberties, has a better suggestion. He thinks the Bill of Rights protection for free speech could be used constructively, not to just ensure we are free to shout abuse at each other. That implies a right to express any view so long as it was expressed a certain way, or perhaps with a good intention.

Could humour be a good intention? Some of the most hurtful speech is humour at the expense of a less powerful section of society. Beagle says he wants free speech to be genuinely free even if it offends others.

Perhaps the answer to this conundrum is not to meet cruel speech with the full force of the law, but to rely on other arbiters of fairness and decency. Free media have set up ethical adjudication bodies to consider complaints of all kinds, including written or spoken discrimination on grounds of gender, race, religion and sexuality.

The Human Rights Commission similarly can issue rulings on hate speech that do not carry disproportional penalties. Society can express its disapproval of cruel and nasty language without turning words alone into a crime.

Criminalising expression does not change minds, it is more likely to harden them. Hate is better defeated by free speech.