Kill the Bill

This article on the proposed Racial and Religious Hatred law is worth reading in full:

The Racial and Religious Hatred Bill may not produce many court cases. Even on the rare occasions when the police and crown prosecution services decide to act, the Attorney General may intervene to avoid a political controversy. But this doesn’t mean that the legislation will have no impact on free speech.

Of course it will. It will have an impact every time the the local arts centre decides that perhaps it had better not book a certain act, or a cinema chain decides not to show a certain film, or a school decides not to hire out its hall to certain speakers. It will have an impact every time the wording of a council leaflet is changed or the local church changes its mind about the topic of its study evening.

That’s exactly right, but I’d like to explore briefly what might happen if the police or Crown prosecution Service did, on a balance of probabilities, decide that things should be taken further.

Defenders of the Bill argue that the person and office of the Attorney General – who would have the last word on whether something was or wasn’t worthy of prosecution – would be the ultimate guarantor that the proposed law would not be used to ‘shut down debate’; that Lord Goldsmith and his successors would not countenance frivolous or vexatious litigation.

It’s certainly heartening to know that the lawyer who definitively pronounced the Iraq war legal enjoys the pre-ordained benefit of the doubt of those commenters who disagreed with him on Iraq and that they automatically assume he would always get it right on the question of religious ‘hatred’. Illogical, but still heartening.

More seriously what worries me about the transfer of the decision making process over artistic expression and what people talk about on the street, in churches, discussion groups or political meetings from private citizens to the police (and ultimately a government-appointed lawyer) is the potential to affect citizens even if they are eventually judged in the right and within the law in situations where the police have decided caution is the best policy: for example after being confronted with an example of an amateur comedy routine or public play they don’t quite understand.

I suspect anyone who has come up against the office of any Attorney General in a professional capacity – in any country in the Common Law world, not just here – has certain thoughts on the amount of time things take to get done in such offices. How long it takes for letters to be answered, how quickly telephone calls are returned etc. Those who don’t have the benefit of that experience need only try to imagine what sort of results one might expect when an underpaid lawyer is crossed with a civil servant with a final-salary pension scheme.

As it happens I am minded to share people’s faith in the general good sense of Lord Goldsmith and suspect his successors are likely to be at least as measured as he in deciding whether or not someone should be prosecuted for religious hatred, even if – as is the case here – the term is poorly defined in the legislation before him.

But how much consolation is that belief when your theatre troupe or political discussion group has to stump up lawyers fees for a year or more after some religious organisation which doesn’t like you considering their faith critically has decided you are a blasphemer or an apostate and has persuaded the police to take a closer interest in the words you have chosen? Why should people have to enter into lengthy and expensive negotiations with the state over what exactly they meant when they commented on a package of beliefs containing philosophy, comforting rituals and old-established folk traditions that people prefer to term religious belief?

The simple answer is that they shouldn’t have to and any attempt to police legitimate discussion of religion is a loaded gun pointed at the head of free expression.