A victory for free speech?

There has been surprisingly little comment on the UK government’s acceptance of the amendment to the Public Order Act 1986 approved by the House of Lords last Thursday (12 November). This amendment is to that section of the Act which seeks to extend the definition of ‘hate crime’ to include attacks on people because of their sexual orientation (in addition to the existing provisions governing race and religion). The amendment has been welcomed in some quarters as a victory for free speech. I’m not at all sure that it is anything of the kind.

Clearly, there have been several instances lately of over-zealous and not very intelligent police interpreting legislation in a maximalist way, e.g., as reported in the New Internationalist, someone photographing a London bus was ordered to desist (information about transport, you see: could be passed to a terrorist organisation). There is something in the claim that over-explicit laws could lead to comedians being prosecuted for off-the-cuff remarks.

The problem is that any use of certain kinds of language creates a climate of tolerance which, while stopping short of incitement, intensifies and prolongs the stigmatisation of minorities as legitimate targets for contempt and abuse.

I include below the text of the relevant ‘exception’ clauses. 29JA sounds innocuous in isolation, but it has to be read in conjunction with 29J. Judge for yourselves.

’29J Protection of freedom of expression
Nothing in this Part shall be read or given effect in a way which prohibits or restricts discussion, criticism or expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule, insult or abuse of particular religions or the beliefs or practices of their adherents, or of any other belief system or the beliefs or practices of its adherents, or proselytising or urging adherents of a different religion or belief system to cease practising their religion or belief system.

29JA Protection of freedom of expression (sexual orientation) The Waddington Amendment
In this Part, for the avoidance of doubt, the discussion or criticism of sexual conduct or practices or the urging of persons to refrain from or modify such conduct or practices shall not be taken of itself to be threatening or intended to stir up hatred.’

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