Cartoons 'provocative, negative, insulting'
MP Louisa Wall says it is "appalling" that the Human Rights Commission has not upheld a single complaint under its race relations section despite receiving more than 2000 complaints since 1993.
Louisa Wall, the Labour MP for Manurewa, has taken Fairfax Media and its papers The Press and Marlborough Express to the Human Rights Review Tribunal over cartoons by Al Nisbet printed in May last year.
The cartoons depicted people taking advantage of the Government's breakfast-in-schools programme to spend money on their vices.
Human Rights Commission acting chief mediator Penny Walker said the tribunal did not take any action on the cartoon complaints because legal advice said it had not breached section 61 of the Human Rights Act.
Under cross-examination, Walker said the commission had not progressed a complaint past "no further action" in her memory.
Sylvia Bell, representing the commission, said one complaint concerning remarks printed about Serbs during the Kosovo conflict had been escalated but it was resolved via a conciliator when the paper published a retraction.
In closing, Wall's counsel said it was "frankly appalling" that the commission took no action on section 61 complaints and had a "generic response about the inability to satisfy the second part of section 61".
Section 61 of the Human Rights Act says it is unlawful to publish matter that is "threatening, abusive, or insulting" if the words are "likely to excite hostility against or bring into contempt any group of persons...on the ground of the colour, race, or ethnic or national origins of that group of persons".
Wall's counsel said it was clear there was "no process in place for determining whether material should be published in light of a section 61 consideration".
"These cartoons clearly should have been seen by the editors for what they were - a provocative, negative, insulting portrayal of Maori and Pacific."
Fairfax argued that the case concerned where to draw the line in section 61 complaints.
Wall had argued that it was too high a bar but Fairfax agreed with the Human Rights Commission that it should only be engaged at the serious end of the spectrum.
Lawyer Robert Stewart said if Wall's approach was taken to its logical conclusion, any material that was "disrespectful, belittling, or that mocks a group on the ground of their colour, race or ethnicity" could be restricted by section 61.
Stewart said 61 should be interpreted "restrictively" to the serious end of the spectrum with "insulting" to mean "scornfully abusive", and "bring into contempt"
to mean "regarding with deep despise, detestation or vilification".
Stewart said it was clear the editors "were aware of the possibility for the cartoons to cause offence".
However, "the right to freedom of expression is also a right to shock, offend, and disturb any sector of the population".
"Of course, freedom of expression also allows those who are shocked, offended or disturbed to say so and why. Through this exchange or marketplace of ideas society is better informed."
He asked the Tribunal to dismiss Wall's complaint and order costs.