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Thursday, 17 May 2012

Strange bedfellows

What a bunch of strange bedfellows!

Rabid right-wing Christians, a rabid right-wing Tory and yer actual “militant atheists” (or whatever the favoured term is for secularists these days) have joined together in the name of freedom of speech.

Yesterday saw the launch of the Reform Section 5 campaign, which aims to increase the pressure on the UK’s Home Secretary, Theresa May, to amend the 1986 Public Order Act.

Section 5 of the Act outlaws “insulting words or behaviour”, whatever “insulting” means, since it can be interpreted in as many ways as there are adjectives. The human-rights campaigner Peter Tatchell – not known for his love of religion – says in a press release: “Civil liberties campaigners, faith groups and secular organisations have joined forces to have the word ‘insulting’ removed from the legislation on the grounds that it restricts free speech and penalises campaigners, protesters and even preachers.

“The Reform Section 5 campaign is headlining with the slogan: ‘Feel free to insult me’, and asks the vital question: ‘Who should decide whether words, posters or ideas are insulting?’

“The campaign points out that the law rightly protects the public against discrimination, harassment, threats and violence – but that it has no legitimate role protecting us from having our feelings hurt.”

Couldn’t agree more. And I know that both Tatchell and Your Humble Blogger have said on many occasions that, once we start down the road of banning what people can say about us, we turn that on ourselves, and suddenly we find we can’t say things about them. That’s why it’s in all our interests to fight for the freedom to say what we like (usual caveats, of course, about shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theatre when there isn’t one; about genuine defamation, which has to be decided in a court of law; and about deliberate incitement to violence).

So who is in the line-up?

Peter Tatchell. Doesn’t need much introduction: Aussie-born Britain-based longstanding campaigner for gay rights and human rights in general. Has got into some hairy scrapes on occasion, even getting beaten up by Robert Mugabe’s thugs, doing permanent damage to an eye.

Keith Wood is director of the National Secular Society, of which his civil partner Terry Sanderson is president.

There’s David Davis, a Tory with a few good points, who (and this isn’t one of them) called in 2003 for the return of the death penalty in the UK for the most serious murder cases.

However, in 2008 he forced a by-election in his constituency by resigning, because he wanted then to recontest the seat on a platform of widening the debate about the erosion of civil liberties by the then Labour government. (He got back in, unopposed, as it happened.)

In a sort of pre-echo of this current situation, Davis shared a platform with another unlikely bedfellow, the left-wing veteran former Labour MP Tony Benn, when the two took part in the launch of Big Brother Watch in 2010

There’s a rabidly Christian Tory of the right-wing persuasion called Edward Leigh, who’s a Catholic, and we know that, in any other circumstances, he might not actually say the likes of Tatchell and Wood should be silenced (well, he wouldn’t dare), but I suspect he would wish they were. Catholics, especially right-wing ones, don’t like the idea of gay marriage, for instance. And, if he follows the ideas of Herr Ratzinger, his fascistic leader, he will see all gay relationships as an intrinsic evil or whatever highfalutin, nonsensical twaddle the old twat spouted.

Leigh was a great Thatcher supporter, which speaks volumes. And he once got into a scrape because he relied on flawed Department for Transport stats to attack motorcyclists for tax evasion.

He’s also president of the ultra-conservative, antigay, pro-family” Cornerstone Group within the Tory Party (the right wing within the right wing, you might say), with the motto “Faith, Flag and Family”. That says it all.

Now it has been known for left-wingers to refuse to share a platform with people they disagree with. Instance Ken Livingstone, failed London mayor hopeful this (and once London mayor himself), who pulled out of a BBC mayoral debate because the British National Party was involved.

I wonder if Livingstone would say Tatchell shouldn’t be involved with Leigh and his  “family values” cronies.

Just a thought, and mentioned because, on occasions (although I’m not accusing Tatchell and Wood of this), lefties have refused to get into bed with righties or those perceived to be racist or homophobic – when it suits them.

However, moving on . . .

Last, there’s Simon Calvert, who represents the Christian Institute, which has had some nutty things to say about gay matters in the past, including questions about freedom of speech, accusing gays of wanting to shut down freedom of speech when the opposite was the case.

This is what Tatchell’s press release quotes him as saying:
Despite my well-known disagreements with David Davis and the Christian Institute, in defence of free speech and the right to protest, we’ve sunk our differences and are working together to reform Section 5. Freedom of expression is so important. It transcends party politics and ideology.

It is commendable that David Davis and the Christian Institute are prepared to work with a gay left-wing Green atheist and secularist like me. We’re all putting the right to free speech before our personal politics and beliefs.

I have been a victim of Section 5. In 1994, I organised a small peaceful protest against the Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir, some of whose members had endorsed the killing of Jews, homosexuals, apostates and women who have sex outside of marriage. I displayed placards that factually documented the persecution of gay people by Islamist fanatics. I was arrested and charged under Section 5 with behaviour that was deemed insulting and likely to cause distress. I fought the charges and eventually won, but not before spending many hours in police cells and standing trial.

This experience convinced me that Section 5 is open to abuse by over-zealous police and prosecutors. That’s why I am supporting the Reform Section 5 campaign. The campaign brings together an unlikely alliance of people who would otherwise be political foes. Both my own Peter Tatchell Foundation and the National Secular Society have been traditionally at loggerheads with the Christian Institute over its opposition to gay equality and its defence of religious privilege. But on this issue we agree.

The Section 5 ban on insults is a menace to liberty. It has been abused to variously arrest or threaten with arrest people protesting non-violently against abortion and for gay equality and animal welfare. Other victims include Christian street preachers, critics of Scientology and even students making jokes.

In 2008, a teenager was given a court summons for holding a placard that denounced Scientology as a dangerous cult. Three years earlier, an Oxford student was arrested for jokingly suggesting that a police horse was gay. In both cases, even though the charges were later dropped, the victims had their freedom of expression infringed and they suffered public humiliation by the police.

Section 5 has been also used unjustly against Christian street preachers who have merely condemned homosexuality, without being abusive or threatening. Although what they said was homophobic and should be challenged, they should not have been criminalised. Dale McAlpine was arrested in 2010 for saying that gay sex is sinful. In my view, Dale is a homophobe but he should not have been prosecuted. On free speech grounds, I offered to testify in his defence.

Under Section 5, is it an offence for a person to use “insulting words or behaviour” in a way that is “likely” to cause “harassment, alarm or distress.” There is no requirement to prove that anyone has been harassed, alarmed or distressed. The mere likelihood is sufficient to secure a conviction. Moreover, an offence is committed regardless of the person’s intention. Innocently intended words, behaviours or signs can result in a criminal record. The police and the courts can decide if you or someone else might feel insulted.

When does an insult cease to be a legitimate (if bad mannered) expression of opinion and become a matter for arrest and prosecution? Much satirical comedy and many polemical critiques of religion are deemed insults by some people.

What constitutes an insult is a subjective judgement, open to widely different interpretations. For some ultra-sensitive people, what others regard as valid criticisms may cause them to feel insulted and distressed. Indeed, any controversial or dissenting viewpoint has the potential to upset someone and result in them – or the police – deciding that they feel insulted and distressed.

If we accept that insults resulting in likely alarm or distress should be a crime, we risk limiting free and open debate and criminalising dissenting opinions and alternative lifestyles that some people may find offensive and upsetting. The right to mock, ridicule and satirise ideas, opinions and institutions is put in jeopardy. Section 5 can, in theory, be used to criminalise almost any words, actions or images, if even just one person is likely to be alarmed or distressed by them.

There is no right to be not distressed or offended. Some of the most important ideas in history – such as those of Galileo Galilei and Charles Darwin – caused great offence and distress in their time.

Do we really need the police and the courts to criminalise insults? Should we not just accept that the risk of insult is a fair price to pay for living in a society which respects free speech?
The law rightly protects us against discrimination, harassment and incitement to violence. It should not be used to protect us from mere insults. It’s time to reform Section 5.

Well, I hope this unlikely coalition is successful in thwarting any attempt to erode our freedoms of speech and expression. But, as for their having “sunk our differences”, we know this is not the case: they’ve decided not to shout about them within the context of this campaign. That hardly amounts to sinking them.

No way have the likes of Leigh and the Christian Institute “sunk [their] differences” when it comes to gay marriage and other aspects of same-sex relationships. But it’s good PR to say they’ve sunk their differences, as long as we realise they’ll be back fighting against civil liberties once the Section 5 campaign is over.

1 comment:

truthspew said...

I'm so glad in the U.S. we have the 1st Amendment. We don't need to deal with such foolishness.

Granted, the U.S. Supreme Court has set certain limits, famously known as you can't yell fire in a crowded theater. And the FCC can regulate language over the broadcast airwaves. But as to what we say in public, or on the net we're covered.