Don’t incite censorship
18 Jul 2007

One of the most pernicious means by which restrictions on free speech have grown tighter in recent years has been through the use of incitement laws, both incitement to hatred and incitement to violence and murder. In some cases, as in the outlawing of incitement to religious hatred through the Racial and Religious Hatred Act, the law is being used to censor genuine debate. In other cases, incitement law is being used to shut down protest, as in the recent convictions of Muslim protestors Mizanur Rahman and Umran Javed for inciting racial hatred and ‘soliciting murder’ during a rally in London against the publications of the Danish cartoons.

Over the past decade, the government has used the law both to expand the notion of ‘hatred’ and to loosen the meaning of ‘incitement’. Much of what is deemed ‘hatred’ today is in fact the giving of offence. And the giving of offence should be viewed as a normal and acceptable part of plural society.

But what of cases where someone has clearly crossed the boundary between causing offence and fomenting hatred? Such speech should not be banned either.

Free speech for everyone but bigots is no free speech at all. The right to transgress against liberal orthodoxy is as important as the right to blaspheme against religious dogma or the right to challenge reactionary traditions. In any case you cannot challenge bigotry by banning it. You simply let the sentiments fester underground.

Hatred, of course, exists not just in speech, but can have physical consequences. The law can and should criminalise the planning and instruction of acts of violence. But there has to be both a direct link between speech and action, and intent on the part of the speaker that that particular act of violence be carried out. In ordinary criminal cases, incitement is, rightly, very difficult legally to prove. The burden of proof should not be loosened just because hate speech may be involved.

Muslim protestors who chant ‘behead those who insult Islam’ may be moronic and even offensive. But the idea that they are inciting murder is equally moronic and offensive to our intelligence.

People do not respond to words like robots. They think and reason, and act upon their thoughts and reasoning. Bigots are, of course, influenced by bigoted talk. But it is the bigots who must bear responsibility for translating talk into action. In blurring the distinction between speech and action, incitement laws blur the idea of human agency and of moral responsibility.

Laws that prohibit incitement to hatred should be scrapped. As for incitement to violence or murder, the law in relation to hate speech must be as tightly defined as it is in ordinary criminal law.

Kenan Malik is a writer, lecturer and broadcaster. His books include Man, Beast and Zombie: what Science can and cannot tell us about human nature (Weidenfeld/Rutgers)

3 responses to “Don’t incite censorship”

  1. Denis Watkins says:

    You might be surprised at the degree of censorship excercised by that world wide beacon of supposed free speech – the BBC.  Unhappy with the excercise of this precious commodity on their chatline about current affairs they decided that not only would everything be censored (the call it pre-moderated) but only they would decide on the subjects.  So BBC rip offs on their phone in competitions and the lack of trust in the BBC did not appear. 

    The asked for aopinions a while back if non believers should be allowed on their daily religious programme Thought for the Day.  They didn’t say non believers in what – fairies, Odin, Santa Clause.  They meant of course God – unspecified which, of course.  Sceptics are still banned although any religious bigot seems welcome including a drunken, freeloading bishop. 

    We are, of course, forced to pay for the BBC regardless of our views and there still remains a core, very tiny now, that is excellent.  However, their hours and hours of tedious religious nonsense continues, the Queen spouts drivel in her broadcast every year and says that the hope of the world lies in religion, and so it goes on.

    Whatever the BBC was, or is, it is definitely not a bastion of Free Speech – it stains its reputation every day with its obseesive protection of religious, its obsequious kow towing to a dysfunctional Royal Family which is the antithesis of democracy and its readiness to bend to the will of the government in power.

    They banned me from their chat line for “using more than one address” – a lie.  I have never done that either in an email or my home address.  When I complained by phone they said someone would phone me but it might not be for ten days or longer.

  2. amos o'brian says:

    Good on you for standing up for free speech. Every time I go to see my Football team (The mighty Melbourne Victory) I would commit a similar offence to the loony Mohammadian demonstrators described. When an opposition player is hurt the crowd chants “dig a hole”. We might be upset about the player feining injury but we don’t literally want him buried alive. Free speech is non conditional or it is not free speech.

  3. I agree about the need for free speech and don’t think that inciting hatred should be criminalised.  Inciting violence, however, should.  In one paragraph you acknowledge that “Muslim protestors who chant ‘behead those who insult Islam’ may be moronic”, but in the next you say “People do not respond to words like robots. They think and reason”.  If only everyone did!  Most Muslims aren’t moronic robots (or terrorists), but a few of them are.  Those are the ones we should all be worried about!  Perhaps a law against inciting violence won’t make much of a difference in practical terms – but it at least lays down an important principle that most people (Muslim and non-Muslim) can unite behind.