“Straws in the wind” show hope for repeal of seditious libel

The UK parliament edged a step closer to repealing the archaic crimes of seditious libel and criminal defamation yesterday, as the House of Lords debated the government’s Coroners and Justice Bill on its second reading.

Liberal Democrat peer, Lord Anthony Lester QC, indicated his intention to table an amendment to the Bill that would abolish seditious and criminal libel, saying:

It took us 140 years to abolish the crime of blasphemy; I hope that this House will see fit to remove these crimes from our statute book as well. I hope that the government will support the amendments; indeed, there were straws in the wind indicating that they might do so.

This is very encouraging: should peers agree to an amendment, the change would need the tacit support of the government to remain in the Bill.

In March, Dr Evan Harris, the Liberal Democrat MP, tabled similar amendments in the House of Commons (unfortunately never debated due to time constraints). Speaking at a meeting in Holborn yesterday evening, Dr Harris said that he too has heard supportive noises from the Ministry of Justice on this issue. Index on Censorship and English PEN will be lobbying the government to formalise this support, as soon as possible.

For campaigners, the abolition of seditious libel and criminal defamation in the UK would be an invaluable tool in the fight for free expression worldwide. In recent years, both Article 19 and International PEN have produced research on the widespread use of sedition and criminal defamation laws to silence legitimate political protest. Abolition in the UK should reinvigorate campaigns for change elsewhere.

The Coroners and Justice Bill raises several other free expression issues, which peers will debate in committee in June. These include the question of whether convicted criminals should have royalties from their memoirs confiscated, and whether laws that forbid hate speech on the grounds of sexual orientation need an amendment to protect those who might wish to question the morality of homosexual practices.

However, some peers criticised the government’s use of portmanteau bills to legislate on myriad topics. Lord Thomas of Gresford complained that the Bill was a “miscellany of no fewer than 15 discrete and complex topics that have been thrown together.” If the Coroners and Justice Bill succeeds in expanding the space for free speech in the UK, it will be ironic that the vehicle for reform is a method of legislation that many regard as undemocratic.

Robert Sharp is campaigns manager at English PEN