What a cunning way to destroy free speech

Melanie Phillips Sunday Times

As if the many hazards and irritations of travelling on the London Underground aren't enough, unwary passengers may find themselves suddenly harangued at ear-splitting volume by a man who goes from carriage to carriage preaching the gospel. The long-suffering passengers wince, giggle, look embarrassed, moan to their neighbours or bury themselves even deeper in their newspapers.

If a police officer, though, were suddenly to march into the carriage, arrest the preacher and haul him off to the local magistrates, one likes to think his fellow Britons would be shaken out of their torpor into disbelieving rage. After all, this country is the cradle of free speech. Isn't it?

Well, maybe not any more. Alison Redmond-Bate was convicted last year of obstructing a police officer who stopped her preaching with her mother and another woman on the steps of Wakefield Cathedral. A crowd of more than a hundred had gathered and shouted "Bloody lock them up" and "Shut up" at the women. This wasn't the first time the preachers, members of an outspoken evangelical sect, had fallen foul of the law. Redmond-Bate and her father had been found guilty of wilful obstruction in 1997 after allegedly "unsettling" a crowd in York by warning them not to turn their backs on God.

It probably does get up a lot of people's noses to be told they're all sinners and will burn in hell. But anyone who doesn't like it can walk away. As Lord Justice Sedley observed when he allowed Redmond-Bate's appeal against her conviction last week, the idea that people would become violent from exposure to an in-your-face version of Thought for the Day was absurd. A bit of shouting from a crowd never harmed anybody.

As for the suggestion that a speaker was innocent of a breach of the peace only as long as what she was saying was inoffensive, this was so dangerously wrong-headed that it inspired the judge to a ringing declaration. Free speech, he said, had to include "the irritating, the contentious, the eccentric, the heretical, the unwelcome and the provocative", provided it didn't provoke violence.

Alas, Lord Justice Sedley is a voice from an already receding past. This is no longer a country that believes in robust free speech. It is far too terrified to give offence, the truly modern heresy. People who are foolish enough to assume that opinion is free may find themselves branded an enemy of the people.

George Staunton, a 78-year-old war veteran, thought that while he was putting up posters for the UK Independence party on a derelict wall, he would embellish their message by writing on the wall "Don't forget the 1945 war" and "Free speech for England". Unfortunately, there was no free speech for Staunton as he was arrested and charged with racially aggravated criminal damage. Last week, common sense finally penetrated the fog of the legal system and the case against him was dropped; but he is understandably still very upset.

Damage is one thing; being a racist is another. As his solicitor, a civil liberties lawyer on Merseyside who knows a racist act when he sees one, pointed out, these remarks weren't racist at all. The police, he said, had been grossly irresponsible.

In fact, the attitude of the Merseyside police was ridiculous beyond belief. They boasted of having launched a "dramatic, painstaking, dawn-till-dusk surveillance operation" against racist graffiti, whose prize catch was one 78-year-old male whose crime was to believe that Britain should be independent of Europe. This was the Keystone Cops meet Big Brother after a course of racial awareness training. If this really is the face of the new racially sensitive, post-Stephen Lawrence police service, then heaven help the black community.

Of course, the Lawrence inquiry itself went down this same road when it recommended that it should be a crime to utter racist language in private. The fact that a tribunal of inquiry headed by a judge could have come up with a proposal of such totalitarian implications shows how dismayingly far we have already travelled. For although this was ruled out by ministers, who could hardly have done otherwise given the barminess of the proposal, the government has instituted crimes of racially motivated violence and racially aggravated damage. It has, in effect, proscribed certain attitudes of mind.

It did so because it wanted to give a signal to black people that it was serious about tackling the racism that undeniably exists. Yet a perfectly good law designed to prevent the consequences of racial hatred is rarely used.

Strangely, the law officers are reluctant to charge people with incitement to racial hatred, even though they may be distributing material that is not just offensive but dangerously inflammatory and intended to provoke real violence. Instead, the government apparently prefers people to be prosecuted for hurting others' feelings or for having the wrong opinion. This is likely to rebound in unexpected ways since everyone is capable of being offended.

Last week, there was fury in the black community after a black man was convicted of calling police officers "white trash". Andrew Wilson was fined 50 by Ipswich magistrates after police officers started checking why he was sitting in the street on a television set, which he had been moving for a friend. Mr Wilson shouted: "You white boys, you arrest black people for anything. You're white trash, you're only doing this because I'm a nigger. Leave me alone, you f****** white trash, leave my black ass alone."

Hurling insults like this is not admirable, but since when did it make anyone a criminal? Ever since the government passed a law against "racially aggravated harassment".

The irony, of course, is rich. Here was a law passed to appease black people who think white society displays prejudice against them, being used against a black person for thinking that white police officers were displaying prejudice against him.

This was extremely oppressive, but not for the reasons the black community is giving. They are outraged that any black person should be convicted of a racial offence, with the implication that only white people can be racist, a distorted view that merely illustrates the dismaying level of bitterness and sense of siege among black people.

Passing laws to outlaw offensive thought is nevertheless the wrong way to tackle the alienation of black people, which has many justifiable causes. Wilson should never have been convicted for name-calling. Yet why was it worse for Wilson to have called the police "white trash" than simply "trash"?

Outlawing "hate speech" is an American phenomenon that has crept up on us unawares. It derives from the overriding injunction not to hurt anyone's feelings. This sentimental viewpoint is profoundly intolerant and illiberal. Freedom of speech is often difficult to take. People may say or write things with which we might vehemently disagree, or which we may find offensive. Tolerance, though, is all about allowing things to be said or done that we believe to be wrong - provided they don't cause harm. Freedom only lives if we disapprove of offensiveness, but defend it to the death.



This Page was created on 12th July, 2000