The Prime Minister’s ill-conceived attempt to criminalise incitement to “religious hatred” has received a lifeline that he would be well advised to grasp. A series of amendments to be debated in the House of Lords tomorrow could yet rescue the Bill from some of its inherent flaws. If ministers refuse to accept them, however, they will be responsible for ushering in some of the most serious curbs on free speech since the prosecution of Gay News under the blasphemy laws some 40 years ago.
The Racial and Religious Hatred Bill is not yet the talk of locals in the public bar of The Dog and Duck, or of parents on the school run. But it will become just that if it is railroaded through without any changes. It was designed to extend to Muslims the kind of protections from insults and abuse that they had failed to get when they sought to prosecute Salman Rushdie for blasphemous libel in 1991, Choudhury’s case. Ancient blasphemy laws cover Christianity. Jews and Sikhs are regarded as distinct races and are therefore protected by laws prohibiting racial hatred. Muslims, fearful of a public backlash in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, were anxious to be accorded similar protections from any anti-Islamic backlash. There would undoubtedly be symbolic value to such a new law, if it could be introduced in a way that did not undermine civil liberties.
But the drafting of the Bill has produced not just a mess, but a proposed law that would severely threaten free speech. No one can choose their race, but they can, and do, choose their religious or political beliefs. Criticism of these beliefs is the very essence of a healthy democracy.
The Bill is also defective because it lacks “legal certainty”. There is no adequate definition of “hatred”, or what would amount to “insulting or abusive behaviour”. The Bill would therefore attempt to outlaw something it cannot define. Such inattention to detail has produced four broad concerns.
First, the effects will be far wider than intended. In ascending order of seriousness, Moonies and Scientologists could waste valuable police time getting officers to stop or investigate concerned Christians leafleting against these sects; comedians, newspaper columnists or members of the public could find themselves facing criminal charges for poking fun at the leaders or beliefs of any religion; Salman Rushdie could find himself prosecuted for The Satanic Verses; and the Bill could actually drive a wedge between Muslim communities and the rest of the country. Religious groups may seek to silence critics by demanding criminal investigations rather than winning their case in the court of public opinion with reasoned argument.
The Lords amendments, tabled by a cross-party group of peers, seek to clarify the important distinction between laws against racism and those that seek to protect the religious from persecution. They specifically spell out that ridicule, criticism and antipathy expressed towards a religion — an important measure of a healthy liberal democracy — would be protected.
As the comedian Rowan Atkinson has put it, the Government is proposing a law that would allow people to ridicule ideas as long as they were not religious ideas. That cannot be right. If allowed to stand, a Government that often offers the impression of being indifferent towards civil liberties will have strengthened that perception.