Freedom of speech, as Franklin D Roosevelt observed, is the first of the four essential human freedoms. It is perhaps more fragile than his desire for freedom from want, fear and for religious expression. In times of war on terror, the risk is that free speech will be the first casualty. The tension between free speech and the safety of the population is a genuine one. Charles Clarke, the home secretary, has just modified part of the Terrorism Bill which dealt with “glorifying” terrorism. Imams and others will now be prosecuted only if their remarks are seen as as inducements to further terrorist acts. Most people will have little problem with such a law. The fact that certain people, mainly radical Muslims, have abused our tolerance to incite acts of terror has rightly provoked anger.
Where there is a problem, however, is with another government assault on free speech that has no direct connection with terrorism — the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill. If it becomes law, anybody who publishes or says anything “likely to be heard or seen by any person in whom it is likely to stir up racial or religious hatred” will be committing an offence that could make them liable to a seven-year prison term.
This bill has so far attracted most attention because of the efforts of comedians such as Rowan Atkinson. They have argued that it would prevent them poking even gentle fun at any religion. It also featured during the election campaign when Mr Clarke — billing himself as “Labour’s home secretary” — wrote to every mosque in the country highlighting Conservative and Liberal Democrat opposition to the proposals. There was a clear implication that the government was trying to secure the Muslim vote.
However, the issue goes beyond the freedom of comedians to tell jokes and it should concern us all. This misguided and unnecessary bill has already passed through the House of Commons, winning a third reading in July by 301 votes to 229. Not for the first time, the task of preserving our ancient freedoms falls to the House of Lords.
The bill, according to one lord, “is the most illiberal measure that has been brought before your lordships in the 18 years I have been privileged to serve here . . . It is also irrational in that it is neither directed at, nor will it solve, the problems that gave rise to it. What it does is reduce freedom of expression — there is no doubt about that at all”. The author of those comments was Lord Peston of Mile End, one of Labour’s peers.
If that does not make the government pause for thought, other objections should. Lord Lester of Herne Hill, the Liberal Democrat peer and a noted expert on free speech and human rights, points out that the powers in the bill are “sweepingly broad”, they apply to words spoken in private as well as in public, and unlike most other serious offences they require no specific criminal intent. Lord Hunt of Wirral points out that similar proposals were rejected by parliament in 1936, 1965 and 1981 and that “no generation of politicians has the right to play fast and loose with our fundamental freedoms”.
Most devastatingly of all, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, the former lord chancellor, notes that the bill carries with it the worst of unintended consequences. It could, he argues, mean that anybody criticising radical imams for poisoning the minds of impressionable young men could find themselves subject to prosecution. The Terrorism Bill and the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill are pulling in opposite directions.
Overseeing all this in the House of Lords is Lord Falconer, Tony Blair’s former flatmate. As lord chancellor he has shown a sloppy disregard for ancient traditions and freedoms. This bill will achieve nothing that cannot be done under existing laws while representing a dangerous attack on free speech. It is opposed by most religious leaders. It must be stopped.