Saturday, 08 May 2021

We should defend right to free speech

THE Public Order Act 1986 makes it an offence to use abusive words or to display any written sign or other representation which is abusive within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby.

The Act’s current application, however, is a cause for great concern in a democracy where free speech is valued.

Alarm or distress are very subjective conditions: what distresses one person in a group might be met with a shrug of the shoulders by another.

There is a sad growing realisation that it is better to say nothing critically hostile in important areas and so avoid facing possible trouble. This type of self-censorship, out of fear, is arguably worse than overt state censorship: it is soul destroying.

Comedians have been advised to avoid jokes that might cause offence as a “hate crime”. Street corner preachers, for example, have been arrested for declaring their belief that active homosexuality is sinful or for claiming that other religions are wrong.

It is true that the Crown Prosecution Service ultimately declined to proceed with such cases but the worry and concern occasioned by the arrests and investigation is substantial.

The situation is not helped by the service’s confirmation that it is for the “victim” or any other person to declare the incident to be a hate crime and insist upon police investigation to confirm whether or not a crime has been committed.

No doubt there are serious incidents that should be prosecuted but it is an open goal for the over-sensitive or the vicious-minded.

Standards of what is regarded as offensive change over time. The acceptability of ethnic descriptions has undergone considerable variation over the years.

Very recently, the statue of Sir Robert Peel in Parliament Square has been deemed offensive by a group petitioning to have it removed because he founded the Metropolitan Police and his father opposed the abolition of slavery.

We are in dangerous times when the beliefs or behaviour of any person or social group may be vigorously criticised or joked about only if one is prepared to face at least the possibility of a complaint and a permanently recorded police investigation for a “hate crime”.

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