Tim Dieppe comments on this week’s House of Lord’s debate on religious hate speech.
Lord Pearson asked an oral question in the House of Lords this week:
“To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether section 29J of the Public Order Act 1986 remains in force, and if so, what is the basis in statute for the offence of religious hate speech.”
Section 29J of the Public Order Act is the so-called Waddington amendment which was designed to protect free speech. Here is what the amendment says:
29J Protection of freedom of expression
Nothing in this Part shall be read or given effect in a way which prohibits or restricts discussion, criticism or expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule, insult or abuse of particular religions or the beliefs or practices of their adherents, or of any other belief system or the beliefs or practices of its adherents, or proselytising or urging adherents of a different religion or belief system to cease practising their religion or belief system.
This is a very helpful clause in law which gives extensive and robust protection of free speech. Without this clause, criticism of other religions could be criminalised. Christian Concern was heavily involved in the battle to get this clause inserted into the Bill when it was debated in 2009.
No criminal offence of hate speech
Baroness Williams, the Minister of State for countering extremism, replied to Lord Pearson’s question as follows:
“My Lords, Part 3A of the Public Order Act 1986 relates to hatred against persons on religious or sexual orientation grounds. Section 29J provides that Part 3A should not be interpreted in a way that prohibits discussion or encouragement to cease practising of particular religions or beliefs. There is no criminal offence in the UK of hate speech.”
It is good to clarify that there is no criminal offence of hate speech. This protects freedom of expression which is an important freedom to protect in a democratic society and which necessarily requires that you are able to express views that others may perceive to be offensive or even hateful.
In public perception though, hate speech is a crime, and this perception is not helped by the activities of the police and the government. The government’s current hate crime awareness campaign, with adverts on the tube for example, has the slogan “It’s not just offensive. It’s an offence.” This implies that speech which someone perceives as offensive could constitute a criminal offence. Then there are the shocking posters in Scotland which say, “Dear Bigots, you can’t spread your religious hate here. End of sermon. Yours, Scotland.” I commented about the many problems with these posters here. Furthermore, the police are promoting the concept of ‘hate incidents’ and asking people to report non-crimes perceived as hateful. All of this has a chilling effect on free speech and encourages the perception of a crime of ‘hate speech’.
Can you be arrested for proclaiming the uniqueness of Jesus?
Lord Pearson followed up with this:
“My Lords, I thank the Minister for her reply. However, I fear that we are on our way to losing our freedom of speech in this area. I repeat a question I put a year ago, which the Government refused to answer: namely, whether a Christian who proclaims that Jesus is the only Son of the one true God can be arrested for hate speech if a Muslim feels insulted and complains to the police. By the same token, can a Muslim be arrested for preaching the supreme divinity of Allah if a Christian takes offence?
“Secondly, can the Government assure your Lordships that they will not follow a new judgment from the Strasbourg court, which upholds Austria’s criminalisation of a lady who said that Muhammad was a paedophile? Or are we to have a new blasphemy law that prohibits discussion of Islam?”
Lord Pearson was referring to a debate on freedom of speech last year in which the government declined to answer his question about whether proclaiming that Jesus as the only Son of the one true God could be arrested for hate crime.
This time, Baroness Williams did respond:
“My Lords, the noble Lord asked me a hypothetical question in an unspecified situation. The CPS and the police agreed definition of hate crime is used for the purposes of identifying and flagging only. The definition is: any criminal offence which is perceived to be motivated by hostility or prejudice based on a person’s actual or perceived disability, race, religion, sexual orientation or transgender identity. When flagged as a hate crime, the police will be satisfied that an offence has been committed and will then investigate evidence in support of the appropriate charge, as well as the aggravated element of hostility. It would not be appropriate for me, as I have just said, to confirm whether this is an example which would constitute a hate crime. That would be an operational decision both of the police and the CPS based on the specific circumstances.
“On the Austrian situation, the judgment does not raise any issues which require any further consideration by this Government at this time.”
Baroness Williams’s reply is very concerning. She declines to state unequivocally that someone proclaiming the uniqueness of the Son of God should not be arrested. Or, by the same token, that someone proclaiming the supreme divinity of Allah should not be arrested. This is in spite of the clear wording of Section 29J above that proselytising and criticism of other religions is protected in law so as not to restrict free speech.
Lord Pearson’s question was not a difficult one to answer. Neither should it be difficult for the minister to confirm that someone proclaiming the uniqueness of Christianity should not be arrested for so doing no matter whether people are offended by such statements. She would only be repeating what Section 29J states in law. The minister avoided stating this though, which means that Lord Pearson is quite right to fear that we are losing freedom of speech in this area.
Street preachers are arrested
The fact is that street preachers are being arrested for preaching the gospel. Earlier this year, a Christian preacher in Barking was arrested and held in custody for 20 hours. With the help of the Christian Legal Centre, police later admitted they had been wrong to arrest him. In another case, two preachers were interviewed under caution after being accused of preaching hate on the streets of Camberley, Surrey. The Christian Legal Centre helped them explain to the police that they had freedom of speech, following which all charges were dropped. Another pastor who was charged after preaching in Woodgreen had charges dropped late last year after the Christian Legal Centre argued that the law provides freedom of speech. It seems from these cases that the police believe that they can arrest or charge people for preaching the gospel if others find it offensive.
Criticism of Muhammad
In the second part of his question, Lord Pearson was referring to a recent judgment of the European Court of Human Rights which upheld Austria’s courts which penalised a woman in Austria who questioned whether Muhammad should be described as a paedophile. In a dangerous precedent, the court ruled that although her freedom of expression had been impinged, she had intended to convey that Muhammad “was not a worthy subject of worship”, and that the interference with her freedom of expression could be justified for the wider benefit of society. We hope this judgment is appealed to the Grand Chamber of the ECHR and that they see the importance of protecting free speech.
It was encouraging that the minister stated that this ECHR judgement does not raise any issues requiring consideration by the government. This means that they consider that the judgment is specific to the situation in Austria and does not have implications for the UK.
Differentiating ‘hate’ and ‘insult’ or ‘abuse’
Lord Rosser then questioned the wording of Section 29J above:
“In the light of those references to “insult or abuse”, do the Government intend to reconsider the appropriateness of those two words in Section 29J in the current climate, which seem to conflict to some degree with the objective of the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 and its protection for individuals from hatred and the fear of violence and harassment?”
It is clear from the wording of Section 29J that “insult of abuse” applies to “particular religions or the beliefs or practices of their adherents.” It does not apply to individuals. In order to have freedom of speech, people must be free to insult, abuse, or even ridicule someone else’s beliefs. These terms are somewhat subjective in any case.
The Minister replied by attempting to differentiate between ‘hate’ and ‘insult’ or ‘abuse’. However, ‘hate’ is also subjective. In her own reply earlier she defined a ‘hate crime’ as, “any criminal offence which is perceived to be motivated by hostility or prejudice …” Therefore ‘insult’, ‘abuse’ and ‘hatred’ are all in the same boat – defined by perception only.
Islam is a peaceful religion?
Lord Paddick stated that he thought that the phrase ‘Islamic terrorism’ was a contradiction in terms. One wonders what phrase he thinks we should use to describe terrorism that is clearly motivated by the teaching of Islam?
This prompted Baroness Williams to repeat the mantra that “Islam itself is a peaceful religion.” Perhaps she should read my recent article on the question of whether Islam is a religion of peace. It appears that she may not be aware of much of the teaching of the Qur’an and of the example of Muhammad. Most Muslims are peaceful people, but it does not follow from this that Islam is a religion of peace.
No one should be arrested for preaching Jesus
There should be no such thing as ‘hate crimes’ or ‘hate speech’ or ‘hate incidents’. A crime is a crime and it should be punished accordingly. The agreed definitions of ‘hate crime’ or ‘hate incident’ are examples of definition by perception and are therefore entirely subjective. Promoting the concept of ‘hate crimes’ only serves to discourage freedom of expression and intimidate those whose views may challenge popular consensus. The government should not be afraid to openly state that proclaiming the gospel is never a crime of any sort – perceived or otherwise. No one should be arrested for preaching the uniqueness of Jesus.