Frequently Asked Questions

Racially offensive comments

What can I do if someone makes a racially offensive comment about me?

Racial harassment is serious. If someone has made, or continues to make, racially offensive comments about you then, in certain circumstances, that may amount to racial harassment. This is unlawful under the Human Rights Act. Racial harassment can include making offensive remarks about a person’s race, mimicking the way they speak, making jokes about their race or calling them names.

The Commission has more information in its leaflet Racial harassment.

Organisations that may help include:

What can the Commission do about people who make comments that are racially offensive?

People frequently complain to the Commission about material on television, radio, print or on the internet which they consider to be racist and likely to lead to racial disharmony.

The Human Rights Act 1993 gives the Commission a responsibility to advocate for, and promote, human rights and harmonious race relations. The Race Relations Commissioner promotes the value of diversity, racial understanding and harmony.

The Human Rights Act does cover serious threats to racial harmony. Section 61 of the Act makes it unlawful to publish material which is, ‘threatening, abusive or insulting,’ and ‘likely to excite hostility’ against a group of people or bring them into contempt on the ground of their colour, race or ethnicity.  This means that it is not enough that the material offends the people who read it – it has to have the potential to excite hostility in those who hear or read it.

While the right to freedom of expression is not absolute, one of the important considerations in establishing what makes a comment ‘unlawful’ is s.14 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 which sets out the right of freedom of expression. Freedom of expression means people can make highly controversial or unpopular remarks.

Because of this, the Commission does not apply section 61 of the Human Rights Act to statements that, while they may be offensive, are unlikely to cause or exacerbate serious ethnic tension or unrest.  Only where there is the potential for significant detriment to society   can the right to freedom of expression be limited.

The Commission advises people upset at offensive comments in the media to first address their concern to the publisher or broadcaster. There are also three main organisations that hear complaints about remarks and statements in the media and advertising:

Sometimes, the best action is for people to take their concern to the person’s employer or to the CEO of the board or organisation where they work. Most organisations have policies and codes of conduct that do not tolerate racially offensive comments.

To contact the Commission for help, call the Infoline number on 0800 496 877.

What can I do about offensive comments made online?

People offended by online comments frequently complain to the Commission.

It may be comment in blogs or other online postings. It may be about themselves or about other people. Often the comments are to do with race, disability or sex. The comments can range from people’s personal or political views to vitriolic insults and name-calling.

Offensive though they might be, such comments may not be against the law or the Human Rights Act specifically.

However, where racist comment reaches the threshold at which it could be said to actively excite racial hostility, it may be a matter in which the Commission could have involvement.

If you feel threatened by online comment made about you, you can contact the Police. Many sites allow users to report abusive or offensive comments. If that is not effective, contact the ISP.

Contact for further advice on reporting or challenging offensive online comment.

To contact the Commission for help, call the Infoline number on 0800 496 877.