12th Nov 2010

Freedom of expression debate

What to make of a Tory Councillor’s tweet calling for a British woman to be stoned to death? Or the man who tweeted his wish that an airport be blown up because of its poor customer service? Or amazon’s decision to continue selling a book on the pleasures of paedophilia? And so on, and on, and on…

My views on freedom of speech/expression are somewhat at odds with current laws, though the problem is often to do with interpretation of those laws rather than the laws themselves.

First, the law against incitement to religious or racial hatred should be split in half, and the religious element abolished. It should not be an offence to express criticism or hatred towards any religion or faith. Expressing hatred of any kind is not pleasant and is often morally repulsive, but such an act should not be criminalised. I draw a line at racism however – racial hatred of any kind should be policed (preferably self-policed) and deemed illegal.

Second, the Public Order Act needs to be revised (or, at least, re-interpreted) so that the offence of offending others is not enforced willy-nilly, and is only enforced in situations where racist forms of offence cause public disorder (or, at least, a threat to public order).

Third, the Communications Act 2003 – the section on malicious communications – needs a serious re-think. Under this Act, it is an offence to send by means of a public electronic communications network a message or other matter that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character. In principle, this may appear just, but in practice we are left with a wide-open and - as the Public Order Act – completely uncertain set of criteria for what constitutes grossly offensive, indecent, etc. Surely cases of obscenity and indecency are able to be dealt with by the Obscene Publications laws on pornography, sexual violence, etc. - there’s no need for this extra piece of legislation. But as for cases of offensiveness – what’s considered offensive to some people (say, denying the holocaust) brings no offence to others, so who decides where to draw the line? (Big Brother! I hear you cry with intrepidation… Orwell must be turning in his grave! And Milton for that matter.)

I would hazard a guess there are few more difficult legal terms to apply/interpret than the term offensive. After all, isn’t the term offence – and the term offender – used in a very general sense to mean all law-breakers? If a term has such general usage, it’s a dangerous route trying to apply it to a specific clause of a specific law.

This country is already a highly-policed, highly-censored state, with some of the strictest libel and slander laws in the developed world, and legislation needs to be cropped rather than expanded. Let people say what they wish – unless they are explicitly discriminating against others on the grounds of their race or ethnicity – and let lay people, not lawyers, judge for themselves the relative merits of different voices, with different points of view. Surely this is a core panoramic principle of democracy that must be defended by us all?

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