MPs' Last Chance to Stand Up for Freedom of Expression

A Commons debate tomorrow, (Tuesday) will see the dramatic conclusion of the Government’s five year effort to get religious hatred legislation onto the statute book. The Lords recently rejected the Government’s proposals in the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill by 149 votes because of freedom of speech fears. The Government have now tabled amendments to largely reverse these in the Commons. The Government’s latest proposals, which carry a maximum seven year jail term, fail by some margin to satisfy those who believe the measure would still have a huge chilling effect on free speech in a way the Lords amended version did not.

A series of compromise amendments have been tabled in the Commons by the Conservative and Lib Dem front benches and some Labour backbenchers*.

Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director of the National Secular Society said: “Had the Government’s current proposals had been in place during the Satanic Verses controversy, the crowd would be baying for Rushdie’s prosecution for incitement to religious hatred, which is to carry a maximum sentence of seven years.

“Even if there are no prosecutions, the Government’s proposals will have a chilling effect on freedom of expression. A free society is one where we can debate, criticise, proselytise, insult and even to ridicule belief, religious practices and, by logical extension, their adherents – as long as we do not incite violence. The more free expression is curtailed, the more those with extreme views will be driven underground where their views will fester rather than being challenged - and the more extremists or those with something to hide will be able to silence commentators intent on challenging them.

“We urge MPs to support the cross party free speech amendments, which do not undermine the Government’s manifesto pledge to introduce a new law.

“There has been an almost unprecedented breadth of opposition to these measures outside Parliament. Opponents include writers, journalists, civil liberties campaigners, and an unprecedented coalition of Christian, Muslim, secular and humanist organisations.

“The cross party amendments would only cover threatening words or behaviour, but not as the Government wants, abusive or insulting words. These amendments would outlaw intentional offences only and insert a clear statement in the Bill to protect legitimate free expression. The Government’s alternative freedom of expression rider is practically devoid of effect, tantamount to ‘you won’t have committed an offence unless you have committed an offence".

The Government first tried to introduce these measures in 2001 and this is their third try.

* By Messrs Dominic Grieve, Alistair Carmichael, John Grogan, Mark Fisher, Bob Marshall-Andrews and Dr Evan Harris.