Monday, 21 September 2009

Entirely Predictable Consequences to Free Speech

I have written before about the unintended consequences, and the unspoken but intended consequences of laws, and especially of laws made in haste, made by an over-confident, bullying executive with a cowed legislative chamber or with weak or non-existent opposition.

The consequences of legislating against religious intolerance were not only predictable, they were widely predicted. Famously Rowan Atkinson and a few other comedians, making their living pointing out ridiculous pomposity of which religion can be a rich source, complained that such laws would be used to stifle entirely harmless and in fact important speech, including humour and debate.

Thus the charging of two Christians who are alleged to have argued with a Muslim guest should not be a surprise. It was not the stated intent of any law to criminalise entirely harmless disagreements, and the government at the time of the 2006 Religious Hatred Act’s progress denied that this would be the case. Worryingly the police did not even use this Act, although the same spirit is clear in the wording of the charges under the 1986 Public Order Act, an act intended to calm street disturbances, as being “religiously aggravated”. Are the police using the 2006 Act to guide their prosecution under the 1986 law, or are they making up the law as they go along? religious intolerance was not illegal in 1986, in fact I didn't think it was illegal now. Is this a generally accepted rider to a charge, and if so on what basis?

The Muslim woman in question might have been offended, but nowhere is it suggested she was threatened in any way. Where did anyone get the idea that a person has the right not to be offended? If freedom of speech is not the right to offend people then what is it? No-one objects to inoffensive speech, by its very nature, so its freedom need not be assured.

Incidentally I was reluctant to use the Daily Mail link above, due to the sometimes-justified reputation for over-the-top reporting, especially on this sort of issue. However after reading the Letter From A Tory about this my brief search only revealed one other national newspaper story. That was unsuitable because The Independent lied in the very first sentence that summarised the story, and lied in a way material to the events. Mr and Mrs Vogelenzang were not, as stated, charged with a racist offence.

Is the Independent simply incompetent? Does that incompetence show up some underlying tendency to see all politically-incorrect speech and action, from the most harmless to the most heinous as equivalent? Was this a deliberate attempt to make the Vogelenzangs look bad, and justify their arrest? It was at best farcical incompetence that should have been followed by a prominent apology and a sacking, at worst snide, disgusting, libellous dishonesty.

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