Gay incitement row exposes free speech divide

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.