As if on cue, a former judge questions the wisdom of aligning hate speech laws to the views of particular campaign groups

Stories, or types of story, tend to come in little flurries. I have written a lot on this blog about free speech and the rights of everyone to be able to say what they think. I have particularly noted the tendency for the police to be clamping down on street preachers who do not adhere to predominant cultural orthodoxy on matters of sex and sexuality. I highlighted one such story just yesterday.

Well, after that story had gone out, I read the following headline in The Times: ‘Transgender campaigners have too much influence over hate crime laws, says former judge‘ (paywall). But, perhaps most interestingly, the judge (despite the headline) wasn’t really singling out transgender campaigners at all. Rather, his concerns were to do with certain campaign groups *cough* Stonewall *cough* having too much power over the application of hate speech laws.

Though the judge did specifically single out Stonewall, his concern was wider than just transgender issues. His concern was to do with the scope and application of hate speech laws in general, over which certain organisations like Stonewall have an inordinate amount of influence. Such is evident just from the story I highlighted yesterday of the street preachers arrested for daring to publicly share their Christian understanding of sex and sexuality that fell foul of Stonewall’s, and hence the police, understanding of hate.

Notably, Charles Wide QC stated:

Rightly, the interests of those who might be protected are considered in detail but little attention has been paid to those who might suffer, or fear suffering, the consequences of laws being too widely drawn or misused. It should be a matter of real concern if the Law Commission is morphing, at least in part, into an engine of social change, pursuing agendas of its own formulation, having a privileged position close to the heart of government.

This is in response to the Law Commission consulting on whether hate speech laws ought to be expanded.

It is interesting, in yesterday’s blog post regarding the arrested street preachers I said the following:

It might feel okay to let street preachers face the force of the law and take our opinions into other venues. But history (by which I really mean quite recent history at that) has shown that what gets banned on the streets soon begins to get banned in other public venues and, not long after, private ones. Many Christians, who have no interest in street evangelism, have argued that they don’t like the medium and believe that they were being offensive in the context. What those folks fail to reckon with is that the offence had very little to do with context and what was being deemed unsayable on the street was going to become unsayable in their churches. Scotland, who have pushed further down this line than England, have even brought forward legislation to make some of these things unsayable in private homes too. That should concern all of us too.

On cue, The Times reported that ‘free speech campaigners criticised the [law] commission over a proposal to classify offensive comments made in private dwellings as a hate crime.’ Whilst that proposal has now, apparently, been dropped it is troubling that such was even a consideration. As I mentioned, Scotland sought to introduce such legislation and it was, frankly, a matter of time before we sought to do the same here.

Hate speech laws have been one of the most pernicious innovations of the modern era. They serve to criminalise those who dare to utter views and opinions that do no damage or harm to anybody. They are the product of the clampdown on a certain brand of muslim cleric who sought to stir up their followers to commit acts of violence in the name of jihad. However, since that time, there has been a creep to include all sorts of ‘hate’, for which read any comments or opinions that offend the sensibilities of any protected group.

There has also, since their inception, been widespread abuse of these laws. Campaigners warned against exactly this when they were introduced. There have been incidents of Prime Minister’s ejecting peaceful protestors from conferences using counter-terror laws. Dozens of examples of street preachers being arrested (eg. here and here). There are the examples of people being removed from their posts in Christian roles for daring to read the Christian scriptures (eg here). There is the banning of Christian prayer meetings under ‘extremism’ measures. There are the examples of Jewish faith schools, otherwise deemed ‘very good’, but failing their OfSTED inspection because they do not teach LGBT+ issues explicitly enough to assuage the god of secular sexual orthodoxy. And these are the obvious cases in which nobody is peddling any sort of hate, just disagreeing with a widely held opinion. There are also a whole series of much harder cases involving people being evidently unpleasant and clearly intending to offend, but who haven’t actually incited, threatened nor committed any violence (eg here, here and here).

Now, we have gone a step further still. We have allowed political campaigning groups – who have particular views and opinions – to guide legislation that is used to govern which views and opinions might be sayable in public. The police have started to become the enforcement arm of the opinions of such groups. We are now, as the proposals above outline, at the point where even expressing counter-cultural views in the family home is being considered verboten. It is a very worrying trend indeed.

I am sure many of these things have ended up being unintended, unforeseen consequences of the legislation brought forward. I am also sure that some have seen an opportunity to press their own agenda through such things and exploited it. But that we are where we are is a problem. What is more, few seem willing to row back and ensure that there is equality for all before the law and that certain groups are not privileged over others, but all have the same rights and freedoms without prejudice.

We need to get away from a situation where we only concern ourselves with the freedom to say the things we want without any concern for the same right being extended to others. That way might seem good while we are in the ascendancy, but in the end, we will come a cropper. As ever, the only guarantee that we will be permitted to say the things we want to say is if we vehemently defend the right of others to say what they want to say too, even if we do find it offensive and alarming.