Protect freedom of expression

Protect freedom of expression

Page 14 of 164: We promote free speech as a positive value.

Democracy cannot exist without the right to free speech.

Free speech should be robustly defended as a fundamental freedom.

The National Secular Society has defended free speech from religious threats since our founding. We played an instrumental role in abolishing "blasphemy" laws in Britain, but serious concerns remain. Blasphemy laws still exist in Northern Ireland. And throughout the UK, religious fundamentalists seek to impose their blasphemy taboos on others through violence and intimidation.

There are also increasing attempts to categorise offending religious sensibilities as 'hate speech', making criticism, mockery or perceived 'insult' of religion a criminal act akin to racial hatred or inciting violence – in other words, a 'blasphemy law by the back door'.

Without free speech no search for truth is possible; without free speech no discovery of truth is useful; without free speech progress is checked… Better a thousand fold abuse of free speech than denial of free speech.

NSS founder Charles Bradlaugh

We are further concerned by a developing 'culture of offence' in which any speech or action deemed likely to offend religious sensibilities is considered taboo. Enforced by a toxic mix of terrorism and religious deference, this is chilling free speech through self-censorship.

We also campaign against blasphemy laws around the world, where they continue to be used to target religious and political minorities. These are sometimes described by UK politicians as 'misuse' of blasphemy laws, but we contend there are never any legitimate uses for blasphemy laws.

Being offended from time to time is the price we all pay for living in a free society. Rather than trying to silence those we disagree with, we believe the answer to speech we don't like is more speech – better speech.

We therefore campaign to protect and preserve freedom of expression, including offensive, critical and shocking speech.

What you can do

1. Share your story

Tell us why you support this campaign, and how you are personally affected by the issue. You can also let us know if you would like assistance with a particular issue.

2. Join us

Become a member of the National Secular Society today! Together, we can separate religion and state for greater freedom and fairness.

Latest updates

Kettlethorpe: New guidance on ‘non crime hate incidents’ approved

Kettlethorpe: New guidance on ‘non crime hate incidents’ approved

Posted: Thu, 11 May 2023 13:32

Guidance saying 'non crime hate incidents' should not be recorded at schools has been approved following a high-profile case involving a Quran.

The revised guidance, which comes into effect in June, was drafted in response to events at a Wakefield school earlier this year when police recorded a 'hate incident' against a pupil after a copy of the Quran was allegedly slightly damaged.

The NSS raised concerns with the Home Office after police recorded the NCHI but took no action relating to death threats issued against the boy from Kettlethorpe High School.

On social media local councillor Usman Ali described the pupil's actions as "serious provocative action which needs to be dealt with urgently by all the authorities", including the police.

Following the incident in February, Kettlethorpe High School suspended four boys and met with Muslim community leaders, councillors and police at the local mosque. Footage from the meeting on social media showed the mother of the boy who brought in the Quran apologising for her son, who she said had received death threats.

The new NCHI guidance says that if a report is made to the police about an incident at a school which does not amount to a crime, the "appropriate police response" is to "refer the matter to the school management team, and to offer advice to the complainant about available support".

It adds: "An NCHI record should not be made on policing systems, and the personal data of the subject should not be recorded."

The guidance clarifies that "offending someone is not, in and of itself, a criminal offence".

It also says "special regard should always be given" to the impact of NCHI recording on "freedom of expression, including the potential risks of a record having a chilling effect on an individual's right to freedom of expression".

The revised guidance also cautions against the recording a NCHI where a complaint is trivial, irrational and/or malicious.

Introducing the new guidance to parliament in March, Minister for Crime, Policing and Fire Chris Philp said it establishes a "proportionate and common-sense approach to the recording of non-crime hate incidents" and emphasises "the importance of the right to freedom of expression".

NSS: kowtowing to fundamentalists only emboldens them

NSS executive director Stephen Evans said: "The clarification that NCHIs should not be recorded in school incidents or where a complaint is trivial or irrational is a welcome response to the disturbing case of Kettlethorpe High School.

"In that case, the recording of a NCHI appeared to legitimise the 'blasphemy' accusations levelled at the school and its pupils. Schools should be protected from religious fundamentalists. Kowtowing to their intimidatory demands will only embolden them.

"We still have broader concerns about the recording of NCHIs and their implications for free speech. The NSS and other campaigners worked for decades to repeal Britain's blasphemy laws – they must not be allowed to reappear through any sort of 'back door'."

Image: Meeting at Jamia Masjid Swafia mosque following the incident at Kettlethorpe High School.

NI government responds to hate crime free speech concerns

NI government responds to hate crime free speech concerns

Posted: Fri, 28 Apr 2023 12:37

Northern Ireland's Department of Justice has agreed free speech protections are necessary in hate crime laws, following concerns raised by the National Secular Society.

The Department of Justice (DoJ) ran a consultation on a new Hate Crime Bill for NI last year. It included proposals that would broaden the definition of hate crime, create a new aggravated offence for sectarian hate crimes, and potentially expand 'hate speech' laws to cover online content.

In its response, the NSS warned some of the proposed reforms could undermine free speech. Its concerns were shared by many other respondents.

Last month the DoJ published a summary of consultation submissions and its response. The NSS welcomed many of the DoJ's responses, which addressed concerns raised about freedom of expression.

  • The NSS said the threshold for hate crime legislation should be of a "sufficient high level" when criminalising a person hate motivated offences, due to the serious potential implications for free speech. Our view was held by the majority of respondents. The Minister of Justice agreed not to reduce the threshold.

  • The DoJ originally proposed to replace the 'dwelling defence', which protects private speech within homes, with a 'private conversation defence' for 'stirring up hate' offenses. The NSS said it saw "no compelling case" for removing the dwelling defence, a view shared by over 90% of respondents. It said the DoJ should instead create additional protections for other private conversations. The Minister said it would retain the dwelling defence and "modernize" it to strengthen protections for private conversations.

  • Most respondents, including the NSS, agreed that the definition of sectarianism in hate crime law should not include political opinion, as this could risk the freedom to expression around politics. The Minister agreed to exclude it. The DoJ also referenced suggestions from the NSS and others for more fundamental changes to address sectarianism, such as in the education system.

  • The NSS said any inclusion of sectarianism in hate crime law should be 'future proofed' to include denominations from non-Christian religions if required. It said crimes motivated by non-Christian sectarianism were already occurring in the UK, including violence against Ahmadi Muslims perpetrated by Muslims of other strands of Islam. The Minister said sectarian hate crime legislation would be 'future proofed' in this way.

While the NSS welcomed these moves, it expressed disappointment that there was no mention of reviewing NI's blasphemy laws. NI is the only jurisdiction in the UK with blasphemy laws. England and Wales repealed their blasphemy laws in 2008. Scotland repealed them via the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Act 2021.

The NSS said there is "always the risk" the blasphemy laws may be invoked to silence criticism or ridicule of religion, and that their presence in NI "undermines efforts to repeal blasphemy laws worldwide". Blasphemy laws are widely used to persecute religious minorities, the non-religious and those who speak out against the status quo.

NSS head of campaigns Megan Manson said: "We are pleased that the Department of Justice has addressed several of our concerns, shared by many other organisations, regarding potential risks to free speech in proposed reforms to Northern Ireland's hate crime laws.

"But the proposals miss a glaring opportunity to scrap NI's archaic and illiberal blasphemy laws. Scotland used its recent hate crime law reform to abolish them. NI should join the rest of the UK in doing likewise."

More information