An idiotic law that could silence free speech

A law intended only to be used against white men with obnoxious beliefs is unworkable

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The other day, I was watching Luis Buñuel's splendidly offensive film,
La Voie Lactée. It's probably the most virulent of his anti-clerical diatribes: it begins with a rendering of the Holy Trinity as a sinister cloaked bully, a dwarf and a bird, and gets worse as it goes on. The funniest scene is a ludicrously convoluted discussion about religious doctrine between waiters in a five-star restaurant, occasionally breaking off from their explanations of heresies to make recommendations: "The oysters are very good today, sir."

The other day, I was watching Luis Buñuel's splendidly offensive film, La Voie Lactée. It's probably the most virulent of his anti-clerical diatribes: it begins with a rendering of the Holy Trinity as a sinister cloaked bully, a dwarf and a bird, and gets worse as it goes on. The funniest scene is a ludicrously convoluted discussion about religious doctrine between waiters in a five-star restaurant, occasionally breaking off from their explanations of heresies to make recommendations: "The oysters are very good today, sir."

Anything more deliberately offensive could hardly be conceived.

Buñuel makes it absolutely clear that he thinks Christian doctrine fair game for insulting mockery, and, furthermore, that religious believers are almost by definition absurd and risible. La Voie Lactée falls into a fine tradition of anti-religious abuse, going back to the Enlightenment. Is such a thing to be permitted under the Government's new religious hatred laws?

The Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill contains measures which will enable steps to be taken against those promoting hatred on religious grounds. A good deal of protest has been voiced by a variety of groups: English PEN has questioned the restrictions on free speech implicit in such a measure, and Salman Rushdie has added his very well-qualified criticism.

The comedian Rowan Atkinson has made the point that the law, as initially framed, might seem to outlaw the making of jokes on religious subjects, and has asked for the measure to be dropped.

The Government, apparently grasping the point that the measure was far too vaguely drafted, has tried to tighten it up. Hazel Blears, the Home Office Minister, has explained that the measure is not intended to apply to jokes: "This is about protecting people, not about the ability to criticise, ridicule, lampoon and have fundamental disagreements about beliefs." The measure is being rephrased, and at present it specifies the offence of inciting "hatred to persons on religious or racial grounds".

Is that going to be enough? I doubt it very much. In the case of Behzti, the Birmingham play which was taken off due to the offence it caused to Sikhs, there seems little doubt that the offence it caused was limited entirely to that "ability to criticise, ridicule, lampoon". No one suggested that the play intended to incite hatred of specific people - and yet Government ministers signally failed to express any kind of support for it. We were decidedly left with the impression that the play had broken some kind of uncodified law. Would it, after the passing of this law, be susceptible to prosecution?

An ingenious religious group could very easily find ways to use this law to suppress free speech. For instance, does the law make it absolutely clear that it refers to specific, living individuals? Or could it be applied to whole religious groups? Or to dead prophets? If somebody said, in print, that the Moonies or the Scientologists were loathsome cranks, or depicted Jesus in a film as a malevolent dwarf, is that not, on the face of it, open to prosecution under this law?

What about creationists? As the law is framed, and as Ms Blears explains it to us, it applies not to ideas but to persons. Is that distinction really sustainable? For instance, it seems to me that I am to be permitted to say that the creationists who run educational policy in Kansas are rational people who hold idiotic beliefs. I may not, however, say that they are perfect idiots who shouldn't be put in charge of a cats' home. You may disagree with that, but it is my perfect right to say it.

Of course, none of this will happen. The Government's intention is not to curb educated comment in newspapers, nor even to do anything about abuse, however childish or vulgar, from the stages of comedy clubs - so long as it is delivered by recognised comedians. But what its intention really consists of hardly seems to be any more acceptable.

Really, the point of this law is to curb a small group of rabble-rousers, who have seen that, though the law at present forbids them to abuse people on racial grounds, it does nothing to stop them abusing practitioners of a given religion. A clandestine BBC film of the leaders of the BNP showed them carefully abusing "Muslims", not, as they might like to have done, "Asians". This is the sort of thing which the Government has in mind.

But they have framed a very bad law, even with modifications, to address the question. It applies, seemingly, universally, opening the way to damaging and frivolous use against anyone. But it is intended, really, only to apply to a particular set of circumstances which it does not specify. A law which is intended, despite its drafting, only to be used against uneducated, white, working-class men with a particular set of obnoxious beliefs is unwelcome and unworkable. Such laws ought to be universal, and if undesirable universally, ought not to exist.

The fact that it inadvertently opens the way for pressure groups to silence the gleeful blasphemers who, from Voltaire to Buñuel and Salman Rushdie, have done so much through irresponsible frivolity to create the conditions of free speech we ought to value so much, is only part of its danger.

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