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January 31, 2006



To be fair, I'm not sure many Muslim leaders are against the bill like that Times article implies. One guy from the Muslim Parliament is the only one that springs to mind. Certainly, the mainstream groups (MCB and so on) favour these curbs on free speech. And the Christian fundies only want the right to say horrible things about Islam, not for Jerry Springer the Opera to make the local playhouse's Spring schedule.


I have to declare myself conflicted out of this one, as I know it is in fact a poorly drafted and unworkable Bill, but the mounding heap of bullshit that all of its opponents (particularly Rowan Atkinson) talk about it - the complete failure to recognise that "hatred" and "incitement" are legal terms with meanings, or that a British law is more likely to resemble a Northern Irish one with the same name than anything in the Netherlands or Canada - make me so angry that I find myself defending it.


D^2 - have you got a source for the legal meanings of 'hatred' and 'incitement', with regard to this bill in particular? I agree with what you're saying about legal language, but this government has got a nasty habit of incorporating catch-all definitions into legislation (cf. 'anti-social behaviour', 'terrorism').

The angle that worries me is the 'recklessness' criterion - if somebody claims to be offended, claiming that you didn't do it either intentionally or recklessly is a bit tricky.


Well it would be a brave man that claimed they meant anything different in the religious hatred legislation from what they mean in the already existing racial hatred legislation, which has not, as far as I can see, caused the sky to fall in.

If somebody "claims to be offended" then they are quite a long way from being able to convince the DPP that racial hatred has been recklessly incited, in any other than bizarre circumstances.


DD, fair point, but you're entering completely different territory when legislating about what people can say about others' ideas as opposed to stuff they can't alter (like race). I'd say the bar has to be set a heck of a lot higher. For example, I'm not sure a private prosecution against someone doing what the ed. of Jyllands-Posten did last September wouldn't succeed with this new law. That has to be worrying, no?


Like this, as Phil says, from Polly T's column this morning:

This free-speech guarantee [in the bill] seeks to protect "debate" and "ridiculing". However, unpick the language: a person can debate and ridicule "unless he intends to stir up religious hatred or is reckless as to whether religious hatred would be stirred up thereby"


The thing about recklessness is that you have to find some way of demonstrating that you didn't show it - it tends to put the burden of proof on the accused. It could also be an accusation made in the aftermath of events considered particualrly sensitive, which means that you have broken the law at some times but not others by committing the same action.

"...a poorly drafted and unworkable Bill."

I tend to think it's deliberate, and that any ambiguity is there to encourage people to watch their steps. It fits in on the ssme continuum with banning hoodies and allowing creationists to run schools: how dare you say offensive things/conceal your face from CCTV cameras. And who cares if science lessons are concerned with the question of why God gave men nipples if the schools turn out orderly young people. It's about order and harmony - neo-confucianism really.

Paul Lyon

Ugh. No speech to be banned save direct incitement to imminent lawlessness or violence. No suits for libel of public figures save for proof of willful deception or reckless disregard of the truth. Full stop. You lot need an implantation of NY Times vs Sullivan (1964) and Brandenburg vs. Ohio (1969). There may not be all that much of the law worth importing from this side of the pond, but that is or should be bedrock for both liberals and radicals.


[DD, fair point, but you're entering completely different territory when legislating about what people can say about others' ideas as opposed to stuff they can't alter (like race). ]

Like I say, I'm not actually in favour of this bill, but since history compels me to be its online champion, I think it's surprisingly difficult to draw these fine lines. What would you say (no, better, what *will* you say because the normal process of legislative inflation is bound to bring this one down the track, probably sooner rather than later) to a Bill which made it illegal to incite hatred of homosexuals? We already have a law against harassment on grounds of sexual orientation (of which more at the end of this post), so is it 100% out of the question to say that it ought to be illegal to go around, for example, claiming that a particular teacher is a queer and therefore a paedophile and a danger to children? Or for that matter, a teacher telling his class that queers were evil and spread AIDS and he didn't want any queers in his class? How much support do you think you would get from comedians and the opinion pages of the Guardian for the cause of defending that right? My real problem here is with the observable fact that at least 50% of the opponents of this bill could give not a fuck for free speech; they are just treating it as a cost-free way to have a go at the Muslims and I don't think that this kind of proxy war is a good way to make public policy.

The other issue is the one I allude to above; there is a real demand in this country for a religious hatred (and arguably a homophobic hatred) law along the lines of the racial one (and the Northern Ireland religious one). It's not even a totally illegitimate demand as there are plenty of racists who are doing an end run around the race hate laws by using religious language, with consequences of at least one riot so far.

If it's not passed by statute law, then it is very likely that the courts are going to create one out of the existing harassment laws. We've already had in a couple of cases the (IMO ridiculous) precedent established that it is possible to "harass" person or persons unknown and the absence of a hatred law is going to encourage a load of borderline harassment prosecutions which are bound to have the effect of setting up a mound of case law which over time will give us a badly designed, jury-rigged hatred law with no safeguards and fewer defences because none of the key concepts will have any basis in statute.

This is where I disagree with Jamie; I don't think that the momentum toward toytown authoritarianism is entirely a creation of the politicians. There's a lot of people who want authoritarianism out there and they will get it by hook or by crook. The compromise Bill passed actually looks like nearly the ideal outcome.

(just on a point of detail, private prosecutions were never going to be allowed under the UK law. And some - not all - of those cartoons were just fucking disgraceful sub Julius Streicher stuff of exactly the kind that I would like to see a court case deciding where the line is between political free expression and outright incitement).


"My real problem here is with the OBSERVABLE FACT THAT AT LEAST 50% of the opponents of this bill could give not a fuck for free speech; they are just treating it as a cost-free way to have a go at the Muslims and I don't think that this kind of proxy war is a good way to make public policy." [Emphasis mine.]

50%? And how did you reach this conclusion? Where does the 50% come from?


As it happens, detailed interviews and email questionnaires of a survey of 250 members of the mailing list of Rowan Atkinson's campaign. My article is hopefully forthcoming in the International Journal of Public Opinion Research.


Many thanks for the heads-up. Please do let us know when the article is published.


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