Leading article: The precious right to offend

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The Independent Online

The inability of so many ministers to understand the principle of free speech is one of the more alarming qualities of this government. Gordon Brown, who intends to become prime minister next year, responded to the acquittal of Nick Griffin, the leader of the British National Party, on a charge of inciting racial hatred by suggesting that the law ought to be changed.

What Mr Griffin said was offensive and revolting. But the point of freedom of speech is that he has the right to offend. It is one of the rights for which those who are remembered today gave their lives. When Mr Brown says that the preaching of religious hatred "will offend mainstream opinion in this country" he is making the argument not for changing the law but for defending it with all the tenacity that a democracy can muster. When Lord Falconer, the Lord Chancellor, says that describing Islam as "wicked and evil", as Mr Griffin did, should have "consequences", he could not be more wrong. The law must protect those who criticise any religion from suffering graver consequences than mere disagreement.

There are limits to free speech, of course. Incitement to violence is one of them, and much of the BNP's hateful rhetoric comes close to the line. The purpose of the court case that concluded last week was to decide whether or not Mr Griffin and his co-defendant, Mark Collett, had crossed that line. The jury decided that they had not.

Ministers are certainly justified in worrying about the extent to which young British Muslims see this country as somehow anti-Islam. We report today that John Reid, the Home Secretary, plans to counter al-Qa'ida propaganda which seeks to turn Muslims against their own country. Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, director general of the Security Service, outlined last week the problem of Muslim alienation, which is creating a pool of potential terrorist recruits. But it is not obvious that a top-down Ministry of Truth is the most effective response.

We need to hear the message of tolerance and moderation more clearly from the mainstreams of all religions. We urgently need mainstream, moderate Christians to demand the abolition of blasphemy law. Just as we urgently need mainstream, moderate Muslims to defend the principle of free speech - but they will do this only if ministers do too.

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