Government Considers Beefing Up Religious Hate Law Even Before It Comes Into Effect
There are signs that the Government is considering rushing into ill-considered new legislation as a response to the acquittal of BNP leader Nick Griffin on race hate charges. Attorney General Lord Goldsmith has said that the new Racial and Religious Hatred Bill – which the NSS opposed and which was eventually watered down in Parliament – will need to be looked at again in the light of the outcome of the Griffin trial.
The Bill was passed earlier this year, but is not even due to come into effect until next February. However, following the acquittal of Griffin, both the Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer, and the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, called for the law to be looked at again. Lord Goldsmith said that he had now had a report of the Griffin case from the lawyers.
“I think the case does show that there’s a gap in the law, but it’s a gap that we wanted to fill with the new legislation, and the question is going to be whether the law that Parliament eventually passed is enough,” he said.
Commenting on the case on the Black Information Link, Garry Slapper, a professor of law at the Open University, said: “The jury acquitted Mr Griffin on all charges of inciting racial hatred, but that should not be taken as an endorsement of his views. As Judge Norman Jones, QC, said in his balanced summation: “This case is not about whether the political beliefs of the BNP are right or wrong. It’s not about whether assertions made about Islam are right or wrong. Those are issues to be debated in different arenas.”
Mr Griffin’s lawyers argued that because his anti-Muslim comments were made at a private meeting he could not have been attempting to stir up public hatred.
NSS Honorary Associate Dr Evan Harris, MP, who led the Parliamentary opposition to the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill, said: “In claiming that the new law governing incitement to religious hatred might not have been sufficient to convict Nick Griffin of the BNP, the attorney general referred to Griffin’s statement that Islam is a ‘wicked, vicious religion’. Yet the Government was at pains during the debate of their religious hatred bill to reassure MPs that criticism, however strong, of religion — as opposed to religionists — would never be covered by their law. That is just as well since otherwise the Pope could be facing criminal prosecution for his remarks on Islam had they been made in Britain.
“Lord Goldsmith also argued that Jews and Sikhs would have been protected from such words but that is simply not the case because Jews and Sikhs are only protected from incitement to race hate and not from a theological attack. Of course, Nick Griffin is not a theologian and his remarks directed at Asians and asylum seekers were nothing to do with religion and were racially motivated. This was therefore a straightforward failure of prosecution under race hate laws. If any revision of the law is warranted – and I don’t believe it is because of the cost to free speech and the risk of creating martyrs – then it is a broadening of race hate laws not protection for religion that is required.”
Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director of the National Secular Society, said: “Communities Minister Ruth Kelly has sensibly declared that Britain needs a genuine ‘dialogue and open debate’ on controversial issues, such as the role of religion in society. But to curb freedom of speech further would have the opposite effect. One of the reasons it took decades for it to emerge that our multicultural policies were not working was that the topic was regarded as off limits. We suspect the Government is jumping on a bandwagon here to put back what Parliament took out of this Bill. It is an undemocratic and authoritarian approach – what is the point of Parliament making carefully considered decisions if the Government seeks to overturn them almost immediately?
“The new law on incitement to religious hatred, which was brought in earlier this year but is not yet in effect, has therefore not been tested. There is therefore no justification for even more draconian laws.
“This Government has tried three times over the last five years to bring in legislation on religious hatred. Each time Parliament wisely thwarted the Government, but still it comes back for more. The final version of the Racial and Religious Hatred Act passed in January was shorn of its most draconian powers by the Lords and the Commons, to the Government’s fury.
“Tighter curbs on freedom of speech will also be exploited by extremists to curb moderates speaking out. They could also drive extremists – whether religious or racist – underground. It is much healthier for us to hear what they have to say and defeat it in open debate than to suppress their frustrations and drive dissent underground where it will fester.”
However, the pressure from Muslim voices for the law to be tightened began with an appeal from Lord Ahmed who said that the Government had “failed to deliver on promises” to the Muslim community to push through tough new laws. He said: “What I have seen is that the Government has been treating the Muslim community like subjects of a colony rather than equal citizens in the UK.” The broadsheets have shown rare unanimity by condemning any further tightening of the law.