Balancing Protection And Freedom

    MPs have approved a bill to outlaw inciting religious hatred, although the government’s original plans were partially defeated after Lords and then MPs forced through amendments. The government’s attempts to give religious groups the same protection from incitement to hate crimes as racial groups have split opinion. Last year the proposed legislation was defeated in the House of Lords. And attempts to strike a compromise prompted a double defeat in the Commons on Tuesday. Amendments to the plans reflect the strength of feeling among critics, many of whom felt the proposals – which will now become law – would infringe freedom of speech. The amendments means threatening language will be outlawed, but not words that are insulting and abusive. They also require the offence to be intentional. In the run-up to Tuesday’s vote, Blackadder star Rowan Atkinson has been one of the most high profile critics of the measures. He said they were a “sledgehammer to crack a nut” and urged that existing race hate laws be amended rather than hampering the right to criticise ideas. He welcomed the government’s defeat, saying the resulting law was a perfect compromise. Different countries around the world adopt varying approaches in an attempt to balance freedom of speech and protecting individuals from hate crimes. Dr Agnes Callamard, the executive director of international human rights group Article 19, says there is “a real patchwork of approaches worldwide”, although methods tend to fall into three distinctive categories. She identifies the “American model” where the state “will not hamper freedom of speech except under extreme circumstances”. The other extreme involves countries where “freedom of speech is curtailed” and there is widespread censorship. Dr Callamard says the UK, as with much of Europe, falls into a third category in which the state “attempts to strike a balance between the right to freedom of speech and the right to equality, and therefore freedom from discrimination.” Holocaust denial Despite the UK’s presence in this category, she says other western European countries have a stricter stance where hate crimes are concerned. “France and Germany, in particular, have far stronger laws in terms of protecting people against religious hatred,” she says, pointing out that the introduction of such legislation will bring the UK in line with other European nations. “For example, Germany, Austria and the Netherlands have Holocaust denial laws and laws that prohibit the expression of particular ideas that might be seen as anti-Semitic.” The case of controversial historian David Irving is a recent example of a situation in which these laws have been tested. Mr Irving, 67, was arrested on 11 November in connection with two speeches he gave in the country in 1989. He could face up to 10 years in prison if found guilty of Holocaust denial charges. “Laws in other European countries are more detailed than in the UK. Much of this is due to historical differences because they experienced national socialists,” says Dr Callamard. Under current UK laws, Sikhs and Jews have full protection from incitement because the courts regard them as distinct races. The new laws will give protection to Christians, Muslims and others. The bill adds to the racial hatred offences in Part III of the Public Order Act 1986 by banning the stirring up of hatred against persons on religious grounds. In October, the government suffered a huge defeat at the hands of opposition peers, when the Lords voted to protect “discussion, criticism or expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule, insult or abuse of particular religions”. This was followed by the government’s two shock defeats by MPs when they voted on the bill on Tuesday. ‘Causal link’ Luitgard Hammerer, a consultant at Article 19, suggests caution should be exercised where the new laws are concerned. “The danger with religious hatred laws is that they tend to define legislation very broadly,” he says. “There has to be a definite causal link between a speech and a violent incident. And the legislation should protect the person rather than prohibiting comments. “If you prohibit criticising a belief system, you are entering very dangerous territory that can be abused.”

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