Protect freedom of expression

Protect freedom of expression

Page 20 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

MP calls for review of government stance on blasphemy laws

MP calls for review of government stance on blasphemy laws

Posted: Thu, 13 Oct 2022 09:15

An MP has questioned the government's terminology in relation to blasphemy laws during a parliamentary debate.

Speaking at a debate on blasphemy laws in Commonwealth nations, Fabian Hamilton (pictured) asked the Minister for Development to review the government's position on the term "misuse" of blasphemy laws.

The National Secular Society briefed MPs ahead of the debate, expressing concerns that the idea of a 'misuse' of blasphemy laws implies the existence of a legitimate usage – a notion they called upon MPs to reject.

Other MPs were also supportive of an "eventual abandonment" of blasphemy legislation, questioning why blasphemy laws are required in nations where they are no longer enforced. Members also discussed the cases of individuals across the Commonwealth who have faced violence and persecution following accusations of blasphemy being levelled against them.

One such case was that of Mubarak Bala, the president of the Nigerian Humanist Association, who was jailed for 24 years in connection to social media posts deemed to be 'blasphemous'.

The oppression and extra-judicial violence faced by minority groups such as the Ahmadi Muslim and Christian communities in Pakistan was also raised by members, who called upon the UK to "play its part" in offering asylum to those affected by blasphemy accusations.

But Jim Shannon said blasphemy laws were not "in and of themselves an issue".

He said a "blanket repeal" of such laws would remove "certain protections" and offered what he termed a "solution" to blasphemy related persecution based upon legitimising convictions in cases where an "intention to cause insult" can be established.

Following the debate, the NSS wrote to Minister of State Vicky Ford calling for rhetoric concerning the 'misuse' of blasphemy laws to be abandoned.

It said a fundamental incompatibility exists between such laws and a "genuine commitment to human rights".

The letter also called for the repeal of blasphemy laws in Northern Ireland, the only part of the United Kingdom where they remain on the books, highlighting how the continued existence of such laws can be cited by repressive regimes as justification for retaining their blasphemy laws.

The NSS urged the government to work together with international partners "towards the abolition of blasphemy laws wherever they exist."

NSS: Blasphemy laws "wrong in principle"

Jack Rivington, campaigns officer at the NSS, said: "Although we applaud MPs for highlighting the ongoing plight of those persecuted through blasphemy accusations, it is incredibly disappointing that none took the opportunity to criticise blasphemy laws for being wrong in principle more clearly, or to more strongly call for a total repeal of such laws.

"Blasphemy laws are incompatible with fundamental human rights such as freedom of expression and freedom of religion or belief. Rhetoric from government and parliamentarians should reflect this fact and not lend legitimacy to the concept of blasphemy laws by employing terms such as 'misuse', or by offering proposals for how such laws might be properly administered."

Protect free speech around religion, NSS urges UN

Protect free speech around religion, NSS urges UN

Posted: Wed, 28 Sep 2022 14:25

The National Secular Society has told the United Nations that efforts to tackle intolerance based on religion or belief must ensure free speech is protected.

The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights is inviting contributions to a report on combatting intolerance, discrimination and violence against people based on religion or belief.

The call for the report was made in a resolution adopted by the UN Human Rights Council in April.

In response, the NSS said that while it supported the "broad principles" of the resolution, it was concerned that the proposed strategies to combat intolerance based on religion or belief may be "vulnerable to exploitation" by those who wish to control speech about religion.

It said that as explicit 'blasphemy' laws become less acceptable, some religious institutions attempt to hijack the cause of combatting intolerance by bringing in "blasphemy laws by the back door" through 'hate speech' laws, public order offenses and official adoption of terms such as 'Islamophobia'.

The NSS noted that the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), whose recent speech at the Human Rights Council formed the basis of the resolution, has long supported efforts to curtail speech that is offensive to religion.

The OIC is an intergovernmental organisation of 57 states and claims to be the "collective voice of the Muslim world". Although it stopped explicitly campaigning for a global blasphemy law in 2011, it has repeatedly spearheaded attempts to install "backdoor" blasphemy laws, the NSS said.

The NSS said equality laws have a "crucial" role to play in combatting intolerance, stigmatisation and persecution of all kinds. But it warned that equality laws should not entrench existing religious privileges that result in discrimination. It cited exemptions in the Equality Act 2010 that enable some institutions, including state-funded schools, to discriminate on the basis of religion or belief.

The NSS warned that the wording of the resolution leaves nonreligious people vulnerable, as it is not sufficiently inclusive of atheists, humanists and others without religious beliefs. It noted that openly nonreligious people are often subject to "extreme hatred, violence and persecution" around the world.

NSS: Efforts to tackle intolerance 'must not undermine free speech'

NSS head of campaigns Megan Manson said: "Efforts to tackle intolerance based on religion or belief must support the right to freedom of expression – including expression perceived as insulting to religion – rather than undermine this right. All blasphemy laws, including 'back door' blasphemy laws, must be abolished.

"It is also essential that strategies are fully inclusive of nonreligious people. All too often, efforts to promote religious freedom in the name of combatting intolerance can compound the discrimination and marginalisation that nonreligious people already face around the world.

"Freedom to manifest a religion is not absolute and a balance must be struck to protect the rights of others and achieve freedom and fairness for all."

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