Here is a link to a petition to end ‘hate speech’ laws. At the time of writing the petition has circa 17,000 signatories and the Government have responded. Their response can be seen via the attached link and is reproduced below.
“Current UK legislation values free speech and enables people who wish to engage in debate to do so – regardless of whether others agree with the views which are being expressed. Everyone has a right to freedom of expression under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). This is a qualified right however, which means that it can be restricted for certain purposes to the extent necessary in a democratic society. This means that free speech is not absolute.
Importantly, the law ensures that people are protected against criminal activity including threatening, menacing or obscene behaviour both on and offline. The Government is clear that hate crime and hate speech are not acceptable in our society, and anyone seeking to use freedom of speech as an excuse to break the law should still face the full force of the law.
A hate crime is any criminal offence, for example assault or malicious communications, which is perceived to be motivated by hostility or prejudice based on a person’s actual or perceived race, religion, sexual orientation, disability or transgender identity. The Government takes hate crime very seriously, which is why we published the hate crime action plan (Action Against Hate: The UK Government’s plan for tackling hate crime) in July 2016. It is also worth noting that section 29J of the Public Order Act 1986, for example, states that the offence of inciting religious hatred, does not restrict or prohibit discussions, criticism or expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule, insult or abuse of particular religions.
In this way, the Government believes the law strikes the right balance between protecting citizens and protecting their right to free expression.”
The first thing to note about the Government’s response, is the implied repudiation of any common law right to free expression; freedom of expression is said to be granted to us by legislation and in particular the European Convention on Human Rights, a foreign treaty enacted in 1950.
The Government goes on to make circular statements, that free speech is not absolute and that ‘hate crime’ and ‘hate speech’ are unacceptable and illegal.
This is followed by an explanation for hate crime, namely the fact that where a crime is motivated or aggravated by hostility against the victim’s protected characteristic, the sentence will be increased.
The reference to this is pure deflection and obfuscation; the petition is specifically addressing ‘hate speech laws’, so called ‘hate speech’ is only a crime because of specific legislation; whether or not sentences should be increased because of the involvement of ‘hate’, for acts which were already criminal offences such as assault, murder or criminal damage, is an entirely separate issue.
Only in the last two paragraphs, is any attempt made to address the substantive issue. However, the reference to section 29J of the Public Order Act 1986 (As Amended), does not serve to provide a conceptual justification for ‘hate speech’ laws. Nor does the self-justifying claim to have struck the correct balance between “protecting citizens” and “their right to free expression”. Indeed, what are they protecting citizens from?
Overall the Government reply sounds more like a warning to supporters of the petition, than any attempt to justify the current status quo ante.
I have written before, see here, about hate speech laws and what I think the limits on free expression should be. In that article I refer to Hansard for some insight into the motivation behind these laws.
I would like to see the government forced to justify ‘hate speech’ laws, with proper arguments. Hopefully the petition will receive the 100,000 signatures necessary to trigger a debate in Parliament.