Failures and success of ‘hate speech’ law in the UK

With a review of hate speech laws under ‘urgent review’ in New Zealand (not that urgent, expected to report back to Parliament late this year or early next year after consultation) there has been interested in how similar laws have worked in the United Kingdom.

Of course examples of seemingly ridiculous applications of the UK laws have been publicised.

David Farrar (Kiwiblog) Government looking to introduce hate speech laws

The UK is a great example of how well intentioned laws end up criminalising many different types of speech. Some examples:

  • An evangelist, was convicted because he had displayed to people in Bournemoutha large sign bearing the words “Jesus Gives Peace, Jesus is Alive, Stop Immorality, Stop Homosexuality, Stop Lesbianism, Jesus is Lord”.
  • A man was arrested in Cardiff for distributing pamphlets which called sexual activity between members of the same sex a sin
  • Harry Taylor sentenced to six months prison (suspended) because he left anti-religious cartoons in the prayer-room of Liverpool’s John Lennon Airport on three occasions and the Chaplain complained
  • A 19-year-old woman was convicted of sending a “grossly offensive” message after she posted rap lyrics that included the N-word on her Instagram page
  • An Irish TV writer was visited by the Police because he used the pronoun “he” on Twitter to refer to a transgender woman.

Lowering the bar from exciting hostility will lead to court cases like the ones cited above. If the Government proceeds, it will be buying a huge battle.

There is already a battle brewing – for good reason. I have serious doubt that a clear and fair law can be written to protect people against potentially damaging speech, and also protect people against frivolous legal jeopardy.

But there is one example of how the law seems to have worked reasonably well in the UK.

BBC News – Jayda Fransen: Ex-Britain First deputy leader convicted over hate speech

A former deputy leader of far-right group Britain First has been convicted of stirring up hatred during a speech about Islam in Belfast.

Jayda Fransen, 33, was found guilty over a speech at a rally in August 2017.

Britain First leader Paul Golding, 37, and two other Englishmen, John Banks and Paul Rimmer, were acquitted on similar charges.

All four defendants were on trial over speeches given during the ‘Northern Ireland Against Terrorism’ event two years ago.

They were accused of using threatening, abusive or insulting words intended to stir up hatred or arouse fear.

The court heard that Fransen told those gathered at the rally that there was no moderate version of Islam and that: “These people are baying for our blood.”

She added: “Islam says every single one of you wonderful people here today deserves to be killed.”

Those attending the rally were then told it was time for the world to come together against “the one common enemy”.

The judge told the court: “I’m satisfied these words were intended to stir up hatred and arouse fear.”

That sounds like a fair call from the judge to me.

He also found her guilty over a separate, filmed incident at a Belfast peace wall in December 2017.

On that occasion, the court heard that Fransen declared the “Islamification” of Britain will lead to similar walls to separate the two sides.

She claimed the country was “descending into civil war” and said it was time to “rise up against the biggest threat against the entire world”.

Confirming a conviction for that episode, the judge said: “I’m satisfied the words were menacing in nature.”

It sounds like Fransen is pretty much trying to incite civil war. I think legal consequences for that are a reasonable response.

(I have heard similar speech to this on New Zealand blogs).

Golding, of Beeches Close in Anerley, London, allegedly referred to a mosque in Newtownards as part of claims about Islam’s colonisation.

In his speech, he said: “We have got a problem with one religion and one religion only, that is Islam.”

Rimmer, of Modred Street in Liverpool, allegedly told the crowd Muslims were colonising and taking over British cities.

The 56-year-old was said to have warned about “a wolf coming down the track”.

He claimed, however, that he spoke about love and friendship.

The judge dismissed the case against Golding, Rimmer and Banks, 61, of Acacia Road, in Doncaster, England.

He said some of their speeches were “ugly” but had not crossed the line into being illegal.

And this seems like a reasonable differentiation – ugly speech that falls short of justifying a conviction.

New laws, like the ‘hate speech’ laws, need differentiations like these decisions to be made to establish a reasonable idea of what is legal and what is illegal.

There is always a risk of some prosecutors and some judges going too far, but the UK legal system, which ours is modelled on, has to work with what legislators (politicians) give them.

Hopefully our politicians can learn from the missteps and oversteps in the UK and avoid them here.