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National Secular Society

Challenging Religious Privilege

Freedom of Speech Is Not Negotiable

The National Secular Society will today join the demonstration in Trafalgar Square in defence of freedom of expression. Executive Director, Keith Porteous Wood will be one of the speakers.

He will say: “Freedom of expression is under threat in a way not seen in this country since WWII. … Just ask yourself why Britain is one of the few European countries to have not even republished one of the Danish cartoons.

“Most of the threat comes from an unhealthy and growing alliance of religion and the state. Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, Jerry Springer the Opera being broadcast by the BBC and the Sikh play Behzti being staged in Birmingham have some disturbing factors in common. All these protests were religiously motivated and yet no prosecutions were taken out against those known to have broken the law in connection with the protests. This gives a powerful and worrying signal: that the authorities do not value freedom of speech and will do nothing to protect it, especially if protests are religiously motivated.

“Few know that a conviction for the most trivial Public Order Offence – including “insulting behaviour” can bring a maximum jail sentence of 7 years, if the offence is deemed to be “religiously aggravated”. This gem was cleverly rushed through Parliament by David Blunkett almost unnoticed amid concerns immediately post September 11 in the Anti-Terrorism Crime and Security Act 2001, Section 39. Convictions have been secured under these provisions, even for someone for wearing a tee-shirt with a message deemed to be offensive to Christians.

“The Government have gone to immense lengths to curtail freedom of expression in Racial & Religious Hatred legislation. Despite New Labour’s large majority, this was thrown out twice by Parliament because of freedom of speech concerns. The Government brought it back a third time only to have the Lords reject it by a massive 149 votes. Their far less harmful version even survived a Commons three line whip onslaught, albeit by only one vote on 31 January this year.

“We must never reach the stage in Britain where people are sent to prison for expressing an opinion that causes no harm to others. Giving offence or causing insult should never be a crime in a country that values free expression. We see the awful consequences of where such law-making leads in other countries around the globe.

“The line in the sand must be drawn, and it must be drawn here, today, by us. And we must keep the valuable alliance we have built today to fight every further threat on our freedom of expression.”

Published Sat, 25 Mar 2006