Gay incitement row exposes free speech divide
12 Nov 2009

The Lords and the Commons are in conflict over the criminalisation of “incitement to homophobic hatred” — specifically the inclusion of a “free speech clause” in the Coroners and Justice Bill, which would allow for criticism of “sexual conduct and practice”.

The clause is apparently intended to allow religious evangelicals to criticise homosexuality as their interpretation of their scriptures might suggest. But of course, it is not only the religious who need their free speech protected. Without this clause would, say, the Daily Mail’s Jan Moir have found herself in the dock for her article after the death of Boyzone singer Stephen Gately, full as it was of insinuations and smears about the supposed dark side of homosexual lifestyle? Would the 20,000 tweeters who reported Moir’s article to the Press Complaints Commission really be happy to have her classed as a criminal for writing an unpleasant article? One would hope not. While there was some concern over the seeming mob censorship of Gatelygate, surely it’s preferable to governmental legislation establishing what people can and can’t say?

But here is the core of the issue: the very fact that a “free speech clause” needs to be inserted suggests something crucial about UK laws: free expression is not a default position, whether in the libel courts or in the Commons. Until that principal is elevated, we will continue to see arguments over controversial legislation such as this.

Padraig Reidy

One response to “Gay incitement row exposes free speech divide”

  1. Christopher Madden says:

    Does Index on Censorship anywhere consider the idea that so-called freedom of expression frequently entails harmful speech that encourages, goads, and incites physical violence, in some cases ending in death? Before James Parkes was brutally attacked to within an inch of his life in Liverpool a couple of Sundays ago by a mob of around 15 young people, he and his friends were subjected to abusive language. Ian Baynham’s death was a consequence of a beating he received when he challenged the homophobic language directed towards him. Clearly in both instances language and action were connected. What the LGBT community is insisting is that language is either psychologically detrimental on LGBT people (I think Judith Butler calls it ‘injurious speech’, drawing attention to the potent effects unwanted language has on an individual) or the actual injuries sustained by a physical attack following the use of such abusive language. A group of thugs walking past an evangelical Christian shouting his mouth off about the perversity of homosexuality being a sin have their hateful intuitions about LGBT people confirmed, and sensing that the hand of the law is nowhere to be seen, also have it confirmed that this kind of ‘criticism’ is sanctioned. Would Index on Censorship be arguing for the rights of such hateful people if their target was not gays but black people?