Government Must Resist Knee-Jerk Reaction To Griffin Trial: Do Not Restrict Free Speech Even Further

It would be catastrophic for freedom of speech for the Government to rush to further tighten the law on religious hatred as a result of the acquittal of BNP leader Nick Griffin, says the National Secular Society. The Society’s Executive Director Keith Porteous Wood said: “It would be a dire mistake to dash to create even more restrictive laws on free speech, when the last legislation isn’t even in force yet. However repugnant Nick Griffin’s opinions might be, the Government must not rush into more ill-conceived lawmaking as a knee-jerk reaction. All the arguments that were employed during the debates on the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill when it was going through parliament earlier this year still apply. Any attempt to outlaw criticism of Islam – or any other religion – will cause more problems than it solves. In Australia, where similar legislation has been introduced, there have had to be modifications, and the Islamic leaders who were most enthusiastic for its introduction are now asking for it to be repealed. They have, in fact, found themselves to be the main focus of it.

“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.

“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 more healthy 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.