In the first prosecution under a ‘hate crime’ law passed in March 2010 five Muslims from Derby have gone on trial for the composition and distribution of leaflets. The leaflet describes homosexuality as a sin leading to hell, calls for the death penalty for homosexuals and contains a picture of a mannequin hanging from a noose. Other leaflets were entitled “Turn or Burn” and “God Abhors You.” The men are reported to have said the pamphlets were distributed to “raise awareness” not incite hate.
This is the first prosecution under a law which took effect in March 2010 which makes it illegal to “stir up hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation.” The maximum penalty for the crime is seven years in jail. Prosecution lawyer Bobbie Cheema, Senior Treasury Counsel at the Central Criminal Court, told the jury they were “threatening, offensive, frightening and nasty.” She was right.
So? Offensive and nasty they undoubtedly are but there is an important difference between written material or speech that is repulsive and distressing, and acts such as armed robbery that are physically harmful. One requires a subjective judgement, the other can be judged with legal objectivity
Laws governing thought and speech rather than actual deeds are not just difficult to enforce they are incredibly hard to confine. Much as it goes against the grain I must agree with Stephen Fry who argues that such laws lead to a culture of censoriousness. Worse they stunt free expression and lead to fearful conformity. Legal censorship leads to the even more pernicious and effective self-censorship. When people are afraid to speak freedom dies.
There is huge moral difference between the anti-Christian jokes of Rowan Atkinson and the repellent leaflets published by the accused. But who decides just where the line is drawn? Who do you trust to decide for you what you can say or write? The government? The lawyers? Editorial writers from the Guardian or from the Daily Mail?
AA Gill, is no stranger to controversy and the need to defend freedom of speech. He wrote of the Welsh that they are, “loquacious, dissemblers, immoral liars, stunted, bigoted, dark, ugly, pugnacious little trolls.” Whilst in his opinion the English are “embarrassing” and an “ugly race” as well as a “lumpen and louty, coarse, unsubtle, beady-eyed, beefy-bummed herd”.
It is possible to dispute some of these remarks, I have met tall Welshmen and not every Englishmen is beady eyed. However, it is also possible to agree wholeheartedly with his argument that free speech is like being pregnant: “You either are, or you are not.” Freedom of speech means freedom of speech, no matter whom it offends.
Freedom of speech cannot be other than non-selective. If I support those newspapers brave enough to publish the infamous Danish Muhammad cartoons I must support Muriel Gray’s right to call me an idiot because I believe in God. As soon as we say “I believe in freedom of speech, but…” we have demonstrated that we do not believe in freedom of speech.
The religion of the five accused is irrelevant, their moral stature is irrelevant, whether they are brilliant scholars or never got out of the remedial class is irrelevant, whether their views are widely accepted by the majority of the population or are confined to a tiny minority of knuckle dragging adherents of Salafist theology is irrelevant. Above all whether we agree with them or not is irrelevant. Freedom of speech is indivisible.
If someone hands you an offensive leaflet calling for the death penalty for homosexuals and you find it repellent do what grown ups do with election material from the Lib Dems, put it in the bin.
We should be big boys and girls and stand on our own feet and not look for the government to preserve our fragile egos by shielding us from nasty people who might possibly offend us.
Being rude, offensive or bigoted may be crude, vulgar, boorish and discourteous, it should not be illegal. If it were John Prescott would be in prison and not the House of Lords. A nation which refuses to silence the rude or bigoted is not a nation which approves of or endorses their prejudices, rather it is a mature nation which values rational debate over state coercion and defends freedom, even when it has unpleasant outcomes. To uphold the freedom of the objectionable is to uphold the freedom of us all.