How free speech became hate crime

Feb 20, 2020 by

by Mary Harrington, UnHerd:

“In this country we have never had a Cheka, a Gestapo or a Stasi. We have never lived in an Orwellian society.” So spoke Mr Justice Julian Knowles on 14 February, ruling on the case of Harry Miller vs the College of Policing.

The ruling upheld Miller’s right to tweet critical remarks about the belief that transgender individuals are literally the sex they identify as. It was hailed by many as “a good day for free speech in Britain”, but while free speech campaigners are fond of painting today’s censorious “You can’t say that!” climate as a decline from some notional golden age of free speech, just how long — and how golden — has that age really been?

We may never (yet) have had a Gestapo. But for most of England’s history there have been widely accepted restrictions on permitted speech, in the form of the common law offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel. The last successful prosecution on these grounds took place 43 years ago, in 1977, when the editor of Gay News published a poem about a Roman centurion’s love for Jesus and was taken to court by moralist Mary Whitehouse.

Though Whitehouse won, the Gay News case contributed to the demise of blasphemy laws in England. The ruling was appealed and eventually made its way to the European Court of Human Rights in 1982, where it was declared inadmissible. The case, appeal and European ruling prompted a Law Commission review of English blasphemy laws that concluded in 1985 that “the common law offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel should be abolished without replacement”.

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Watch:  Professor Kathleen Stock: Hate Crime: The Elephant in the Room


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