Saturday, October 15, 2011

England considering moderating hate speech laws

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Button: “The worst part of censorship is [censored]”

As I’ve often said, in order for a society to truly uphold the ideal of free speech, it must be applicable in any and all cases, including in defense of offensive bigotry. Unfortunately, England has a history of arresting and prosecuting individuals who commit the latter “crime”, notably homophobic street preachers yelling at passing gay couples about their destiny in Hell and whatnot. Again, this does makes them crazy gits, but it should not turn them into criminals under the law.

Thankfully, it looks like English lawmakers are finally reacting to the mounting outcry against these injustices, and the law, currently so vague and overbroad as to stifle virtually any speech that anyone else may find insulting for whatever reason, may be about to receive a much-needed revision:

The Home Office is looking at the possibility of removing the offence of causing “insult’ from the Public Order Act.

Currently, section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 says that “a person is guilty of an offence if he … uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour … within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby.”


Civil rights groups – and gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell – have called for the law to be changed because it “criminalises free speech”.

Exactly right. The only valid exceptions to true freedom of speech are cases where actual violence or mass disruptions are threatened (such as with the common example of yelling “fire” in a crowded theater), or when someone’s quality of life is unfairly impacted as a result of lies and slander (such as ruining someone’s standing by accusing them of child molestation). In any other case where order and well-being are not credibly threatened, a person’s freedom of expression must be allowed to stand, no matter how offensive anyone else may think they are. (Of course, the corollary is that you may then fire back just as vehemently as you wish, and no-one can stop you then, either.)

Sadly, not everyone understands this, including those in a favored position to know better:

Gay rights charity Stonewall has opposed any change to the law.

Speaking in July, Ruth Hunt, Stonewall’s director of public affairs, said: “We believe that the law is currently settled in the right place balancing freedom of expression with people’s right to live free from abuse which can be hugely intimidating. We will continue to express this view firmly to ministers.”

Except that no-one has the right not to be offended, Ms. Hunt. They may wish to avoid confrontation and intolerance as much as possible, but in the end, if we start prohibiting certain types of speech or expression on the sole basis that they hurt some people’s feelings, whoever they may be, then we’re beginning down a very unpleasant slippery slope that will not end well for any of us. Either people’s right to free speech is protected, or it is not. Other than some reasonable and obvious legal exceptions (such as those noted above), there really cannot be any room for ambiguity in the matter.

(via Joe. My. God.)