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Roundup: Freedom of speech

Posted by James Hammerton @ 10:23 pm on 9 February, 2008.
Categories political liberties, freedom of speech, British politics, US politics.
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Now for another round-up, this time on freedom of speech related stories of which there have been a fair number in recent months.

  • Back in October, the Pub Philosopher pointed out how Britain’s new religious hatred law is beginning to bite:

    A number of people have already posted about Father John Hayes, the priest who was interviewed by police on suspicion of inciting racial hatred, after he expressed views about religious dress and radical Muslims in his parish newsletter. Esmerelda wondered whether, given that Father Hayes’s comments were made over a year ago, someone was taking advantage of the new Religious Hatred Act to make their complaint.

    This may give a clue to the response of the police. Usually, the police would look at the evidence in a complaint and then decide whether they thought a crime might have been committed before taking any further action. The problem is, you can’t do that with the Religious Hatred Act.

    Read Section 29B. It says:

    A person who uses threatening words or behaviour, or displays any written material which is threatening, is guilty of an offence if he intends thereby to stir up religious hatred.

    And you can’t work out what someone’s intention was without talking to them.

    To establish whether Father Hayes had broken the law, the police had to judge whether he was a rabid Muslim-hater, hell bent on stirring up a religious war, or a harmless parish priest engaging in theological debate. Presumably, the senior officer who picked up this case decided that the only way this could be done was by sending two coppers to interview Father Hayes.

    As I said last year, this is one of the most worrying aspects of the new law. It is up to the authorities to decide what they think you meant. They can, if they choose, infer meanings from your words that had never occurred to you when you wrote or said them.

    The letter which led to Father Hayes being interviewed can be found here.

    This shows how laws that restrict what people can say can be used to intimidate someone via the mere threat of a prosecution, by someone who might simply dislike what the person said. This can have just as big an effect on free speech as any actual convictions brought under the such laws and such threats can be used without the speech concerned necessarily being proscribed by such laws.

  • Apparently, it is illegal for pub landlords to put up signs saying “FAGGOTS & MINCE NOT ON THE MENU”.
  • The Pub Philosopher has been pointing out how the idea of “inciting religious hatred” has been lifted from western countries and applied elsewhere, with results such as the teacher Gillian Gibbons charged (in Sudan) with inciting religious hatred for naming a teddy bear “Mohammed” (this charge was dropped though), the Turkish publishers of Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion” being charged with “inciting hatred” and with Islamic countries pushing for both the UN and EU to ban the incitement of religious hatred. He finishes:

    Accusing people of incitement to religious hatred, when they have simply been critical of Islam or have inadvertently offended the faithful, is now a common tactic. This verbal sleight of hand has its origins in the West but it has been eagerly appropriated by the reactionary bigots throughout the Muslim world, so that a publisher in Turkey, a teacher in Sudan and a priest in east London can all be accused of incitement to religious hatred by people who really just want to shut them up.

  • A Canadian lawyer Faisal Joseph has brought a case against Mark Steyn over an article where Steyn is critical of Islam. According to the Economist:

    The piece, an excerpt from Mr Steyn’s book “America Alone: The End Of The World As We Know It”, was notable for its simplistic demographic projections—Yemen (population 22m) will outnumber Russia (141m) by mid-century, he wrote confidently—and for the reaction it generated. Maclean’s published 27 letters, many of complaint. That was not enough for some offended Muslims. Last spring a group of Toronto law students marched into the magazine’s offices demanding equal space for a rebuttal by an author of their choosing. Ken Whyte, the editor and publisher, told the group he would rather see Maclean’s go bankrupt.

    Last month the students and the Canadian Islamic Congress (CIC), a lobby group, filed complaints against Maclean’s at the Canadian Human Rights Commission, as well as those of Ontario and British Columbia. The article, the CIC claimed, harmed Muslims’ “sense of dignity and self-worth”.

    Their choice of forum has brought protests. The criminal code has hate-propaganda provisions, but using these requires convincing a prosecutor. The bar is much lower for Human Rights Commissions and their tribunals. These were set up to deal with discrimination on grounds such as race or sex in jobs, housing or services. Even the man who inspired them, Alan Borovoy, a civil-liberties lawyer, is dismayed at their misuse to limit free speech. The tribunals can only levy small fines and give an order to desist. But the proceedings involve steep costs for defendants, whereas plaintiffs pay nothing if the commission decides there are grounds to proceed.

  • In a controversial case in Britain, Samina Malik, the “Lyrical Terrorist” has been found guilty of “possessing records likely to be used for terrorism”. According to the Telegraph:

    Police were alerted after finding an email from her on another person’s computer.

    When they raided her home, they found folders on the computer called “Samina’z Stuff” and “Copy of Handbooks” as well as dozens of handwritten notes hidden in the pages of a book and a bracelet which carried the word jihad [holy war].

    On a mirror were found the words “Lyrical Terrorist” and on one piece of paper she had written: “The desire within me increases every day to go for martyrdom, the need to go increases second by second.”

    In her poems she wrote about killing heathens, adding: “Kafirs your time will come soon, and no one will save you from your doom.”

    Police found a copy of Osama Bin Laden’s Declaration of War and a passage in which she praised the al-Qa’eda leader and added: “We will not let you have any peace. We will show no remorse, no mercy and no regrets”

    In one poem, called “Raising Mujahideen [holy fighter] Children,” she recommended indoctrinating children from the age of seven, adding: “Show the children videos and pictures of mujahideen and tell them to become strong like them.”

    Explain how the Mujahideen fear no man - they fear Allah alone, and for his sake they are able, willing and capable to do anything in defence of Islam.” Malik joined an extremist organisation called Jihad Way set up to disseminate terrorist propaganda and support al-Qa’eda.

    On a website called Hi-5, similar to social networking sites such as Facebook or MySpace, Malik listed her interests as: “Helping the mujahideen [holy fighters] in any way which I can… I am well known as lyrical terrorist.”

    It seems to me that in this case, Malik was at minimum inciting terrorism (i.e. inciting violence) and thus the point that freedom of speech reaches its limit when you incite violence applies. However this view is not shared by others. I intend to discuss this case in more detail later.

  • Back in November, the British government proposed extending the incitement to racial and religious hatred laws to cover inciting hatred against homosexuals, the disabled and transsexuals. Extending the law to cover inciting hatred against homosexuals is already part of the Criminal Justice Bill currently going through Parliament. Tim Worstall points out that all three groups are currently protected by laws against inciting violence:

    OK, all of that I understand and indeed agree with. It is, as he says, depressing. The bit I don’t understand is this:

    Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary, has told MPs that such fears are unfounded because he will shortly introduce an amendment to the Bill ensuring that cases can be pursued only when the offending words are specifically intended to pose a threat and are not merely humorous, mocking or abusive.

    What’s the point of that? As a lawyer, surely Straw knows (he’s the bloody Lord Chancellor so we do hope he does know) that we already have a blanket law about incitement to violence. So why do we need a law about incitment of violence to gays, the disabled or the changelings? It’s all already covered so why bother?

  • The Oxford Union caused a stir when it invited BNP Leader Nick Griffin and “revisionist” historian David Irving to a debate on free speech. Naturally there were those who were opposed to this move and demonstrated against it, and there were those who defended the move on grounds of freedom of speech. For the moment I’ll limit myself to the following points:
    • Freedom of speech includes the right to invite someone to speak at an event you’re organising.
    • Freedom of speech does not include the right to a platform, but if someone offers you a platform you have the right to accept it (though you may be bound by any conditions attached), no matter how odious your views are.
    • People have a right to object to your decision to invite odious person X to your talk. You have the right to invite them nevertheless.
    • People do not have a right to prevent your talk/debate from going ahead by storming your platform or blocking people from coming to see it/join.

    I intend to discuss this topic again in more detail later.

  • The United Nations as adopted a motion calling on countrys to outlaw “defamation of religion”. According to the Pub Philosopher:

    While most of us were occupied with our preparations for Christmas, the United Nations passed a resolution calling on member states:

    [T]o provide, within their respective legal and constitutional systems, adequate protection against acts of hatred, discrimination, intimidation and coercion resulting from defamation of religions, to take all possible measures to promote tolerance and respect for all religions and their value systems and to complement legal systems with intellectual and moral strategies to combat religious hatred and intolerance.

    The resolution was proposed by Pakistan on behalf of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference which has been pushing for legislation against insults to Islam since the Danish cartoon row.

    As you might expect, the only religion specifically mentioned in the resolution is Islam.

    The resolution was passed by 108 to 51.

  • abelard reports on the case of Lionheart, a British blogger, currently abroad, who is threatened with arrest under the racial hatred laws when he returns to the UK. Brian Micklethwait, at Samizdata, has some doubts about what’s going on, but other bloggers regard the case as an attack on free speech. Having looked at the blog myself, I’m inclined to agree that he should not be facing legal action for what he has posted there.
  • Samizdata report that the US state of Oklahoma is not merely silencing critics of the Oklahoman government but sending them to jail for ten years. The crime of which they’ve been convicted: Circulating a petition without being a resident of Oklahoma!
  • Samizdata also highlights the case of a euthenasia campaigner arrested in New Zealand.
  • Al-Jazeera reports that Belarus has jailed the editor of a paper that published the Mohammed Cartoons for 3 years for inciting religious hated.
  • Yet again, someone receives death-threats after making comments critical of Muslims/Islam:

    Threatening phone calls were made to the Rt Rev Michael Nazir-Ali after he wrote that non-Muslims faced physical attack if they entered some Muslim-dominated enclaves.

    He has taken police advice on his security after he and his family received death threats but is said to be “continuing as normal”.

    Bishop Nazir-Ali said in a statement on his website last night that he did not intend to offend Muslims, but to demonstrate that the policy of multi-culturalism had not worked.

    “The purpose of my article was to point out that the best way for welcoming and integrating newer arrivals in this country should have been a Christian vision of hospitality and not the secular policy of multi-culturalism which has led to such disastrous consequences,” he said.

    He said Christian converts found it difficult to live in some areas while Christian workers were unable to practise the full range of ministry.

    However, he added: “I made clear in the article that my comments were about the particular impact of Islamic extremism and were not about Muslims in general.”

    Bishop Nazir-Ali said that since the publication of his article in The Sunday Telegraph, he had received about 1,000 letters, 95 per cent of which had been supportive.

    “On a personal note, I am sorry to say that since the article appeared, threats have been made against the safety of my family and myself and have had to be reported to the police,” he said.

  • On my personal blog, I argue that the refusal of a visa to Yusuf Al-Qaradawi is not an attack on freedom of speech.
  • Finally, I must mention Harry’s Place who have been running a series of posts about Sayad Parwez Kambaksh, a 23 yr old Afghan who has been sentenced to death for distributing a paper critical of Islam. From their first post on the matter:

    Journalists, and the National Union of Journalists, should be campaigning to save the life of this man.

    An Afghan court on Tuesday sentenced a 23-year-old journalism student to death for distributing a paper he printed off the Internet that three judges said violated the tenets of Islam, an official said.

    The three-judge panel sentenced Sayad Parwez Kambaksh to death for distributing a paper that humiliated Islam, said Fazel Wahab, the chief judge in the northern province of Balkh, where the trial took place. Wahab did not preside over the trial.

    Kambaksh’s family and the head of a journalists group denounced the verdict and said Kambaksh was not represented by a lawyer at trial. Members of a clerics council had been pushing for Kambaksh to be punished.

    The case now goes to the first of two appeals courts, Wahab said. Kambaksh, who has been jailed since October, will remain in custody during appeal.

    Wahab said he did not immediately have the details of the paper that Kambaksh circulated, other than that it was against Islam. Kambaksh discussed the paper with his teacher and classmates at Balkh University and several students complained to the government, Wahab said.

    Kambaksh’s brother, Yacoubi Brahimi, described Tuesday’s proceeding as a “secret trial,” saying the family did not know it had been scheduled. Some have accused Kambaksh of writing the paper in question, but Brahimi said that his brother printed it off the Internet.

    Since this post, Harry’s Place has reported that reported that the International Federation of Journalists have been urging Hamid Karzai to overturn the death sentence, the campaign has been picked up by the Independent and an online petition set up with over 63,000 signatories at this time of writing and a protest outside the Afghan embassy took place in London on Friday. An Afghan government official has apparently said Kambaksh will not be executed.

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