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27 July 1999

The Right to be Offensive

The following article was originally published in The Times (London) on 27 July 1999
'The best way to deal with prejudice is through more speech, not less, by exposing it to the harsh light of debate, contradiction and rebuttal'

by Mick Hume, LM Editor

Lord Justice Sedley told the High Court last week that "freedom only to speak inoffensively is not worth having". He was speaking in the case of a fundamentalist Christian who was appealing against her conviction for obstructing the police by preaching vehemently on the steps of Wakefield Cathedral. Allowing the appeal by Alison Redmond-Bate, Lord Justice Sedley insisted that: "The irritating, the contentious, the eccentric, the heretical, the unwelcome and provocative have a right to be heard."

And so say all of us, or at least, all of us who still believe in free speech unconditionally. It probably was irritating to the innocent shoppers of Wakefield to be informed loudly by Ms Redmond-Bate's group, Faith Ministries, that they were bound to burn in Hell. It was arguably even more provocative of the evangelical sect's members to stand outside pubs in York screaming "Sinners!" at the drinkers stumbling home.

But that's just tough. In the real world, nobody has the right not to be offended. What we should insist upon instead is the Right To Be Offensive. From Galileo's suggestion that the Earth was not the centre of the Universe to Darwin's theory of evolution, any idea worth its salt has been guaranteed to cause offence. Advances from universal suffrage to organ transplants were once deemed offensive to public decency. Each time it proved well worth causing pain to some in order to benefit humanity as a whole.

Unfortunately, the right to be offensive has to mean freedom of speech for those who offend us, too. That includes Glenn Hoddle's remarks about disabled people, the British National Party's election broadcasts, A.A. Gill's declaration of loathing for the Germans, the anti-Catholic karaoke of the Glasgow Rangers vice-chairman and every other recent expression of off-colour or off-message views. They cause offence, and no doubt they call for a sound intellectual thrashing. But no opinion should be a cause for sacking or censorship.

Notwithstanding last week's decision, the current drift of legal and political opinion is towards further restricting freedom of speech, primarily by outlawing "hate speech" directed against black people, homosexuals, women and others. Lord Justice Sedley himself is a prominent proponent of new laws against hate crimes. He may have been happy to uphold free speech for Christian fundamentalists. It would be interesting to see if he was quite as supportive of the rights of soapbox racists.

Sir William Macpherson of Cluny certainly would not have been. Among the 70 recommendations contained in his seminal report into the murder of Stephen Lawrence, Macpherson proposed making it an offence to use racist language even in private. At the time of the report's publication in February Paul Boateng, the Home Office Minister, ruled out such a measure on the ground that the Government was "not in the business of political correctness". Yet Mr Boateng's boss, Jack Straw, had already beaten Macpherson to the PC punch in his Crime and Disorder Act 1998.

The Act introduced a new offence of racially motivated violence and also obliged the courts to impose stiffer sentences for existing crimes if they believed the offender was racially motivated. By asking the courts to read an accused person's mind, rather than judging him on what he had actually done, Mr Straw's law effectively created the first British thought crime.

This month alone, the new provisions have led to a Swansea football fan being jailed for a year for screaming "nigger" at a black player, while a 78-year-old war veteran has been charged with racially aggravated criminal damage for painting "Don't forget the 1945 war" and "Free speech for England" on a wall in Liverpool.

The irony is that undermining the right to be offensive will do nothing to combat bigotry. The best way to deal with prejudice is through more speech, not less, by exposing it to the harsh light of debate, contradiction and rebuttal, or even to public ridicule and indifference. But that means treating us all as adults and that, it seems, would be anathema to new Labour's intolerant liberals. It is far more important to be able to say what you think rather than having to worry about hurting somebody's feelings.

When Alison Redmond-Bate and her father, Alan Bate, were first convicted of obstruction while preaching, a policeman told York magistrates that, when arrested, Bate had "unleashed a barrage of religious hype and highly charged twaddle". The mark of a civilised society is surely its ability to tolerate highly charged twaddle of all sorts, regardless of the twaddler's race, religion or creed.

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