Protect freedom of expression

Protect freedom of expression

Page 17 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

Home secretary agrees to issue new ‘blasphemy’ guidance at schools

Home secretary agrees to issue new ‘blasphemy’ guidance at schools

Posted: Mon, 6 Mar 2023 11:37

The home secretary has agreed to issue new guidance on 'blasphemy' incidents at schools, following concerns raised by the National Secular Society.

In a letter sent last week, the NSS asked Suella Braverman (pictured) to work with the Department for Education towards "an improved understanding of blasphemy and its role in the wider threat posed by Islamism" in the context of state schools.

Writing in The Times this weekend, Braverman said schools should answer to "pupils and parents" rather than "self-appointed community activists".

"I will work with the Department for Education to issue new guidance spelling this out", she added.

Ms Braverman's article continues: "We do not have blasphemy laws in Great Britain, and must not be complicit in the attempts to impose them on this country. There is no right not to be offended. There is no legal obligation to be reverent towards any religion. The lodestar of our democracy is freedom of speech."

Her pledge comes in the wake of events at Kettlethorpe High School in West Yorkshire, where four pupils were suspended last week after one of them brought in a scuffed copy of the Quran. The episode was recorded as a "hate incident" by the police and one of the boys, who has high functioning autism, has been subjected to death threats. His mother said she had been left "absolutely petrified".

In a now deleted tweet, a local councillor had called for the boys to be investigated by the police and a local imam said "we will never tolerate disrespect of the Koran, never!"

Minister for schools Nick Gibb has also announced that his department is working with the school. Denouncing the death threats, he said: "There is no blasphemy law in this country and schools should be promoting the fundamental British values of the respect for rule of law, individual liberty and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs."

Kettlethorpe is the latest in a string of incidents in which de facto blasphemy codes have been invoked. The NSS letter said the events "followed a familiar pattern of so-called community leaders whipping up tension and peddling misinformation". In 2021, a religious education teacher at Batley Grammar School was forced into hiding after showing a picture of the Islamic prophet Muhammad in class.

The "inadequate response" from government had "emboldened fundamentalists seeking to exert pressure through intimidation", the letter added.

NSS: 'schools must be empowered and supported to stand up to religious fundamentalists'

NSS chief executive Stephen Evans said: "We welcome these robust comments from the home secretary. The proof of the pudding, however, will be in the new guidance issued by the Department for Education, which must empower and support schools to stand up to religious fundamentalists seeking to impose de facto blasphemy codes.

"Ms Braverman is correct that 'timidity does not make us safer; it weakens us'. This is the standard by which the new guidance must be judged."

Image: UK Parliament, CC BY 3.0

NSS urges support for schools facing religious intimidation

NSS urges support for schools facing religious intimidation

Posted: Thu, 2 Mar 2023 11:46

The National Secular Society has urged the government to do more to support schools which face "intimidation and pressure" from religious fundamentalists.

In a letter to education secretary Gillian Keegan today, the NSS said recent events at a school where pupils were suspended over minor damage to a Quran "followed a familiar pattern of so-called community leaders whipping up tension and peddling misinformation".

Last week four pupils were suspended from Kettlethorpe High School in Wakefield after a pupil brought a Quran into school, where it was allegedly scuffed.

One local councillor, Usman Ali, described the incident on social media as "serious provocative action which needs to be dealt with urgently by all the authorities," including the police.

The child who brought the Quran into school reportedly suffered death threats.

The NSS highlighted other incidents in which "an inadequate response" from the government "emboldened fundamentalists seeking to exert pressure through intimidation".

This included Batley Grammar School, where in 2021 a religious education teacher was forced into hiding after showing a picture of the Islamic prophet Muhammad in class.

Additionally, in 2019 several primary schools in Birmingham faced protests and threats from religious activists over LGBT-inclusive education.

And in 2018, St Stephen's Primary School in east London was subjected to abusive and threatening messages to its staff and trustees, after the school asked parents not to make young children wear hijab or fast for Ramadan. The school was forced to reverse its policies, and leaders expressed frustration at the DfE's failure to support them.

A review of the government's counterextremism Prevent programme last month highlighted the "violence associated with accusations of blasphemy and apostasy" as an area of particular importance in challenging extremism. It said a strong pro-free speech narrative should be adopted in counter-narrative and community project work. The NSS urged the Department for Education to consider this recommendation "in the context of state schools, which are increasingly becoming a battlefield for religious fundamentalists".

The NSS also called for a "renewed emphasis" on citizenship education to "provide future citizens with the knowledge and skills necessary to understand, challenge and engage with democratic society".

NSS chief executive: Government must "take concrete steps to better protect and support schools"

Stephen Evans, chief executive of the National Secular Society, said: "The government has a track record of failing to adequately support schools faced with disruptive interference from religious extremists.

"The latest incident in Wakefield appears to have followed a familiar pattern of so-called community leaders whipping up tension and peddling misinformation, leading to an overreaction to what should have been an internal school disciplinary issue.

"Without the support of the DfE, school leaders are left at the mercy of fundamentalist activists and online mobs. This allows extremists to control the situation and creates the impression that the protection of religious sensibilities is sacrosanct, to the detriment of important liberal principles.

"The government must therefore take concrete steps to better protect and support schools in such situations. In the short term, we trust the Department will ensure that the suspended pupils can return safely to school."

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

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