Chipping away at free speech

Henry Porter

Government attempts to override a free speech clause in a homophobic hatred bill illustrate its determination to attack rights.

"The politically motivated trampling of free speech is something that should concern us all," says a letter in the Times from the Conservative peer Lord Waddington and the Labour MP and former backbencher of the year David Taylor.

After a free speech clause was inserted into a new offence of homophobic hatred in May 2008 and the bill was enacted, the government has returned to try to get its way by introducing a clause in another bill that repeals the earlier guarantee. You can't have a better example of the remorseless energy that attacks rights. It will surprise few to learn that the new clause appears in the coroners and justice bill which has been drafted by Jack Straw's Justice Department. The letter says:

The free speech clause is supported across the political spectrum. Liberty, the Church of England, Matthew Parris and Rowan Atkinson have also joined the ranks who back it.

The old clause says:

For the avoidance of doubt, the discussion or criticism of sexual conduct or practices or the urging of persons to refrain from or modify such conduct or practices shall not be taken of itself to be threatening or intended to stir up hatred.

In March this year this was deleted but the Lords reversed the decision of the Commons in a move that clearly acknowledges the wide support for the protection of free speech and the undesirability of the police monitoring people's speech and writings for signs of illegality.

Lord Waddington, a former home secretary, who I would suggest has a keener idea of rights and liberty than any of his Labour successors, wrote on this site:

Not so long ago five officers approached a church worker as he handed out invitations to an Easter service and seized them for examination, citing allegations of homophobia.

Not surprisingly they contained no reference to sexuality and the police dropped the matter. But this case should set alarm bells ringing in the ears of all who care about free speech.

In their letter today, the two parliamentarians say: "It is the duty of parliament to try to prevent this from continuing to happen."

Spot on. It will be interesting to see who votes against free speech.

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This article has generously been brought to our attention by Sarah Meyer of INDEX RESEARCH.


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