Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Better stir up some hatred while you still can

Over at No Quarters I see the story's been picked up about proposed religious hate legislation here in the UK, and that inspired me to post. This law would outlaw any speech which “stirs up” hatred against others on the basis of their religion (or lack thereof).

The provisions make it an offence for a person to knowingly use threatening, abusive, or insulting words or behaviour with the intention or likelihood that they will stir up hatred against a group of people based on their religious beliefs
From the Home Office FAQ on the incitement to religious hatred proposals

First off, I don’t think hate should be against the law. I should be able to think what I like about whomever I like. Period. Not only that, but I should be allowed to communicate in such a way as to persuade others to my view. I should not be allowed to make speech which is a direct incitement to violence, but new legislation isn’t needed for that, it’s already against the law.

Comedians are particularly worried about this because they're afraid that telling religious jokes will land them in the clink. Whether that's a valid fear or not, I can't say, but even the worry that it might be will have the effect of restricting speech. (And that’s what was picked up at No Quarters and in particular a contest held by Ship of Fools to find the best religious joke – there are some funny ones)

Prosecution of this law will be at the discretion of the Home Secretary, we're told. The government says that means it will hardly ever be used. But I'm not so sure. There's already a law restricting speech which provokes hatred on the grounds of race and according to the Home Office there have been:

Between commencement of the Public Order Act on 1st April 1987 and 3rd February 2005 there have been 72 defendants prosecuted for incitement to racial hatred.
The Attorney General has only used his veto on 3 occasions.
Between 2001 and 2004 86 cases were referred to the CPS for consideration. As of the 2nd February 2005:

  • 6 cases have been prosecuted (involving 12 defendants)
  • 2 defendants have been convicted
  • 1 case was dropped
  • 3 cases are ongoing (involving 9 defendants

Here’s an example from a Scottish newspaper The Herald of a newspaper editor charged under this racial hatred act. He said some pretty unpleasant things about immigrants, but it didn’t stir up any hatred in me.

But with only a quick perusal of the net, I couldn’t find out how many people had been arrested under this act as the sole offence or as a ‘tag-on’ to other offenses (assault, public disorder, etc). The Vol-in-Law and I were watching a “Cops” type show within the last few months and saw a young woman arrested for shouting a racial epithet while drunk. I have no idea if she was later formally charged and prosecuted, but she was arrested. The threat of arrest and detention (even for a short time) is a danger to free speech. And this even in a case where her abusive shouting was unlikely to lead to any kind of ‘stirring up’ of hatred against whatever ethnic group it was (the word itself was bleeped).

As in the case above, this law is very likely to be applied unequally. The Home Office’s own FAQ states:

The need to take into account all the circumstances of a case means that it is very difficult to give a yes/no answer to whether particular statements will be caught by the new offence. For example the context and audience of what is said are as critically important as the words themselves. The same series of critical statements might be more likely to stir up hatred in the backroom of a pub full of drunken men in area of deprivation and tension than said an in academic debate in a university.

So essentially, it’s fine to debate the merits of Islam or Buddhism or Christianity in a ‘high class’ arena like a university lecture hall, but if you carry your debate on to the pub and start speaking a little loudly, you’re in for it.

I belive that this law is largely an appeasement to the Muslim Community and the Muslim Council of Britain are behind this law. Part of their reasoning they argue is that other religions are already protected under existing laws and they want the same legal protection extended to them. Jews and Sikhs are in fact protected under the Race Hatred law through a kind of addendum. And there is a law of blasphemy on the books now which means that technically you can't say anything against Christianity. In practice though this law is unenforced.

The Muslim Council of Britain has issued a statement in support of this law. But by supporting this law, I’m wondering if they’re doing their affiliates a disservice. See more about the ‘hate speech’ some of its member organisation practice over at MCB Watch. Certainly over at the rather scary web site Islamic Awakening, they feel that this law could curtail their efforts to stir up hatred against Jews and Zionists.

Of course, I’m sure that the MCB is more likely to follow-up complaints against speech they feel is ‘stirring up hatred’ against Islam and its adherents than many other groups, so they may yet get this law to work in their favor.

No comments: