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December 15, 2004

Comments

Frank McGahon

"If I declare that "Jedaism" is a new religion, and get enough people to write "Jedi Knight" in the next census, do I then get to be protected from "religious hatred" by those who like to say that Star Wars is crap?"

That is surely the logic of this bill and given that "Jedis" apparently outnumber Jews, Sikhs or Buddhists - http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2004/12/13/nfaith13.xml - This isn't even some ludicrous hypothetical scenario!

Chris Bertram

I think you'll find, Abiola, that the prominence given to Voltaire in op-ed pieces is not explained by any _argument_ he puts, valid or invalid, but rather to the saying -- probably a misattribution -- "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." The fact that this doesn't actually express his attitude would seem to me to be a good reason not to invoke his name in such contexts.

Frank McGahon

Whether it is Voltaire's actual argument or not, it's still a good one. Perhaps it might satisfy you if those op-eds described it as the "Fauxltaire" argument instead?

Abiola Lapite

"This isn't even some ludicrous hypothetical scenario!"

Indeed. Take a look at the following exchange recorded on Hansard:

http://www.parliament.the-stationery-office.co.uk/pa/cm200405/cmhansrd/cm041207/debtext/41207-10.htm

It seems someone raised this very point with Mr. Blunkett, and his response is a masterpiece of incoherence.

" Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): I am still perplexed because there is no definition of religion. On the 2001 census form, 5,015 people in Sheffield gave Jedi knight as their religion. I hate "Star Wars", so should I be worried?

Mr. Blunkett: If someone incited people because of their love of "Star Wars", or against people with a love of "Star Wars", they would be caught under existing law, but not in terms of religion. That is the whole point—

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): That is the point!

Mr. Blunkett: No, that is the point of having to bring in the new measure to provide equity of treatment in relation to faith."

This makes no sense whatsoever. If "Jedi Knight" is a religion, and its adherents are already protected under the current laws, why is this new law needed? What is there about the laws already on the books that makes their treatment of faiths inequitable?

dsquared

I'd appreciate it if you could strengthen the caveats above, because currently it looks like you're saying that I'm in favour of preventing certain kinds of religious speech. In fact, my position is that I'm in favour of closing a loophole which has been used by the BNP to allow them to make statements which superficially resemble comments about religion but which when taken in context are actually intended and understood by their target audience to be comments about race. I'm in favour of preventing certain kinds of speech about race because of the social harm that they have caused in the UK over the last fifty years.

In answer to your last question about Jedi Knights, it looks as if Blunkett himself is confused or misspeaking. It is legal and will remain so under the new bill to incite hatred against people based on their filmic (or more importantly sexual) preferences. The issue I think he is trying to address is that there are two offences which people are currently conflating.

Religious harassment is already a crime. Victimising particular individuals because of their religion is specifically against the law, and religious hatred can be an aggravating circumstance for other offences. The treatment here is exactly the same as that for racial harassment, or indeed for harassment against sexual minorities.

However, incitement to religious hatred is not currently an offence, whereas incitement to racial hatred is (in the CT post, I analogised this as the distinction between "lighting a fire" and "piling up tinder". Piling up racial tinder is illegal, but piling up religious (or homphobic) tinder isn't. Which, of course and provably, creates the opportunity for regulatory arbitrage by trying to do one under the appearance of the other.

So basically we're in agreement; I don't think that religious speech has any right to special protection unless giving it such special protection is the least-cost way of addressing a serious social problem. I don't think that this Bill is such a way, not close, and made a few suggestions as to ways in which it ought to be changed.

I'm not a free-speech absolutist (specifically, I'm in favour of chucking Fascists in jail, and will happily add Islamofascists to this category as and when I am convinced of the public policy case for doing so). I view it as one good among others and thus will always look weaselly and authoritarian when engaged in argument with someone who is happy to bang the gong for sonorous general principles and downplay the importance of particular facts. So be it; my shoulders are broad on this one.

Abiola Lapite

"In fact, my position is that I'm in favour of closing a loophole which has been used by the BNP to allow them to make statements which superficially resemble comments about religion but which when taken in context are actually intended and understood by their target audience to be comments about race."

The problem with this is that the game of using code words to refer to something else is one with near-infinite scope of play; it's easy enough to see this by looking at the American example, where phrases like "States Rights", "Law and Order" and "Welfare Cheats" have come to stand in for "Coloreds", "Niggras" and other terms that are no longer used in polite company. What's to stop racists from using, say, "enemies of free speech" in such a loaded manner that everyone comes to understand just what they're getting at? We can't go around banning politically charged phrases ad nauseum, can we?

"I'm in favour of preventing certain kinds of speech about race because of the social harm that they have caused in the UK over the last fifty years."

I could hardly be more in sympathy with this position, foremost of all because its entirely in my self-interest to see such harm kept in check; I just don't think the means under suggestion here are appropriate to the task, and I'm convinced that they'll end up doing more harm than good.

"I'm not a free-speech absolutist (specifically, I'm in favour of chucking Fascists in jail, and will happily add Islamofascists to this category as and when I am convinced of the public policy case for doing so). I view it as one good among others and thus will always look weaselly and authoritarian when engaged in argument with someone who is happy to bang the gong for sonorous general principles and downplay the importance of particular facts. So be it; my shoulders are broad on this one."

But aren't you worried about precedent? Once we start outlawing certain forms of speech, even though they fall well below the threshold of outright incitement to violence, what is to stop some administration down the road from banning speech you might think perfectly appropriate? What if some right-wing Tory government someday decides to ban talk of "class warfare", "class enemies", "the greedy rich" and the like, as "incitement to class hatred" (which such rhetoric surely is)?

When I hear justifications of the restriction of civil liberties on pragmatic grounds, I can't help thinking of the fall of the Roman Republic; then too, men thought they were taking extraordinary measures for the best of reasons, but the long term result was to legitimize ever more egregious flouting of the rules.

dsquared

what is to stop some administration down the road from banning speech you might think perfectly appropriate?

Well, the reaction of the British public to this little fiasco certainly warms my heart.

Peter Nolan

"In answer to your last question about Jedi Knights, it looks as if Blunkett himself is confused or misspeaking."

He is the minister RESPONSIBLE for introducing and enforcing the law. If he can't distinguish between valid and invalid uses then the country is in trouble.

If I set up my own religion, will somebody agree to hate me so that I can bring a test case?

dsquared

Private prosecutions are not allowed under the draft Bill. I think I need a keyboard shortcut for that phrase.

Abiola Lapite

"Private prosecutions are not allowed under the draft Bill."

But private efforts to mobilize CAIR and MAB-style outrage over government failures to prosecute will be. Every religious group with an axe to grind will be sure to do just that, whenever it feels itself challenged in any way: that certainly seems to be the experience in both the Netherlands and Australia, where similar laws exist.

Frank McGahon

"If he can't distinguish between valid and invalid uses"

Peter, I infer that you think that it is "valid" to prosecute incitement to hatred against, say, Buddhists but "invalid" to prosecute incitement to hatred against "Jedis". Do you have any basis to make this distinction other than "Well, Buddhism is a 'proper' religion and Jedi-ism isn't"?

Frank McGahon

"I'm not a free-speech absolutist (specifically, I'm in favour of chucking Fascists in jail, and will happily add Islamofascists to this category as and when I am convinced of the public policy case for doing so)"

But this rather assumes that "fascists" may be readily identified or that some sort of broad consensus of who qualifies a "fascist" exists. Such a definition must be on an ad-hoc basis and it is foolish to assume that such ad hoc judgements wil always be wise - the government isn't going to go and ask Daniel Davies each time it contemplates a brand new category of "fascist". If you are prepared to accept the principle that the government may lock up people for speech currently politically unacceptable you can't really complain when they use the very same power to lock up people for different types of "unacceptable" speech. Such as, for example, animal rights advocacy.

dsquared

The UK incitement to racial hatred laws send roughly four people a year to clink, usually made of of one Muslims, two skinheads and one borderline loony old anti-Semite. I submit this as evidence that, whatever happens in the Netherland and Canada, the UK courts have typically operated on a very high standard of what constitutes incitement to "hatred" for the purposes of the law. This *is* a bad law, but we really ought to be thinking about it on the basis of facts rather than assumptions.

Frank McGahon

The argument isn't so much to say that horrible thing X *will* happen because of this law, just that if you stick to the basic principle of free speech you don't really have to rely on the wisdom and fairmindedness of the government and every individual acting on its behalf right down to any cop or bureaucrat with a grudge. Once you make exceptions for certain types of speech you are placing your trust that this power won't be abused.

Peter Nolan

Has anyone noticed who exactly the Muslim Association of Britian ARE? They could well the first to be prosecuted under the new law.

http://blackline.blogspot.com/2004/05/blair-loses-muslim-vote.html

Abiola Lapite

"Has anyone noticed who exactly the Muslim Association of Britian ARE? They could well the first to be prosecuted under the new law."

They're certainly a nasty bunch, but I doubt they'd be pushing half as hard for this legislation if they felt that this was likely to be the case.

I also think it's telling that BNP leader Nick Griffin, who's had plenty of vile things to say about all sorts of people in the past, has only finally been picked up for inciting "racial [sic] hatred" after he began inveighing against Muslims. Quite apart from demonstrating the superfluous nature of the proposed new legislation, Griffin's arrest indicates that selective enforcement will likely be the order of the day if Blunkett gets his bill passed; in other words, the MAB does seem to know what it's talking about on this score, if on nothing else.

eoin


Of course the funny thing about anti-religious hate speech is that it is generally conducted by other religions. Mr. Pailsy remains convinced that the spiritual leader of about 1 Billion Christians is, in fact, the Anti-Christ. I am sure he is protected under all laws, and future laws, for this.

Johnathan

abiola man, how's it going chief

saw you on the bus today looking smart ;)

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