Straws in the Wind

I was at the House of Lords on Monday, listening to peers debate the Coroners & Justice Bill.  As previously mentioned, this Bill offers the chance to repeal the laws of criminal defamation and seditious libel.
I have summarized this aspect of the debate over at the Index on Censorship Free Speech blog – another outlet for my furious typing…
Index on Censorship Logo
The UK parliament edged a step closer to repealing the archaic crimes of seditious libel and criminal defamation yesterday, as the House of Lords debated the government’s Coroners and Justice Bill on its second reading.
Liberal Democrat peer, Lord Anthony Lester QC, indicated his intention to table an amendment to the Bill that would abolish seditious and criminal libel, saying:

It took us 140 years to abolish the crime of blasphemy; I hope that this House will see fit to remove these crimes from our statute book as well. I hope that the government will support the amendments; indeed, there were straws in the wind indicating that they might do so.

This is very encouraging: should peers agree to an amendment, the change would need the tacit support of the government to remain in the Bill.
In March, Dr Evan Harris, the Liberal Democrat MP, tabled similar amendments in the House of Commons (unfortunately never debated due to time constraints). Speaking at a meeting in Holborn yesterday evening, Dr Harris said that he too has heard supportive noises from the Ministry of Justice on this issue. Index on Censorship and English PEN will be lobbying the government to formalise this support, as soon as possible.
For campaigners, the abolition of seditious libel and criminal defamation in the UK would be an invaluable tool in the fight for free expression worldwide. In recent years, both Article 19 and International PEN have produced research on the widespread use of sedition and criminal defamation laws to silence legitimate political protest. Abolition in the UK should reinvigorate campaigns for change elsewhere.
The Coroners and Justice Bill raises several other free expression issues, which peers will debate in committee in June. These include the question of whether convicted criminals should have royalties from their memoirs confiscated, and whether laws that forbid hate speech on the grounds of sexual orientation need an amendment to protect those who might wish to question the morality of homosexual practices.
However, some peers criticised the government’s use of portmanteau bills to legislate on myriad topics. Lord Thomas of Gresford complained that the Bill was a “miscellany of no fewer than 15 discrete and complex topics that have been thrown together.” If the Coroners and Justice Bill succeeds in expanding the space for free speech in the UK, it will be ironic that the vehicle for reform is a method of legislation that many regard as undemocratic.

6 Replies to “Straws in the Wind”

  1. Doesn’t seem to silence the tabloids though. They’re allowed to tell lies and traumatise and ruin people’s lives with virtual impunity.
    I think this is a very dangerous thing to repeal, and I for one will be protesting against it.
    As for the right to question the morality of homosexuals (or indeed anybody else) –
    How could you, Rob? Moral high-mongering deserves no protection. “Morality” is a manufactured construct used as tool by the right-wing to undermine and condemn vulnerable people. How could you?
    This is not the Rob I know. This is a black day for Hang your head. A great shame indeed.

  2. No, its yet another case of Clarice getting the wrong end of the stick. You seem to have entirely misunderstood what seditious libel and criminal defamation are… and my position on the homosexual hatred issue to boot.
    In turn, then:
    First, this article assumes that one knows what seditious libel is. It is the prosecution of someone for “bringing into hatred or contempt” the monarch and the government. An entirely different thing from “telling lies”. It actually criminalises satire of the government and the monarchy, and truth is no defence. Its dead letter law in this country, because it will have escaped no-one’s notice that satire and criticism of the monarchy and government continue.
    Second, criminal defamation is the prosecution of a libel through the criminal courts, with a prison sentence at the end of it. When it was used in the UK, it was to prosecute libels against the government or groups, not individuals. Where they are used abroad, it is to protect corrupt officials and give special protection to certain groups.
    Abolition of these laws would leave intact our civil libel laws. As it happens, because of so-called “libel tourism”, I think civl libel laws do need to be reformed too… but that is not dealt with here at all.
    The laws in question are illiberal tools of a bygone age, sisters of obscene libel and blasphemous libel, born in an age where the whole point of libel laws was to suppress dissent and entrench the power of the ruling class. We are well rid of them, and such a position is entirely consistent with the we all know and love.
    Third, on the issue of morality on homosexuals: Please read the post carefully. In the article, I neither endorse or reject the ammendments that deal with hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation! I merely mention that there is a free speech issue at stake. I agree with Lord Lester’s point:

    The question is whether you think that homophobic hate speech is more like race hate speech or religious hate speech. Does homophobic hate speech attack people for the way they are born, for their common humanity, unlike religious hate speech, which attacks people because of their beliefs or their chosen practices? My belief is that it is more like race hate speech than religious hate speech, and therefore the free speech clause that the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, successfully put into the Bill was not necessary. One can see the lack of necessity; Section 29JA of the Public Order Act 1986 provides:
    “For the purposes of the offence of stirring up hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation, discussion or criticism of sexual conduct or practices or urging persons to refrain from or modify such conduct is not, in itself, to be taken to be threatening or intended to stir up hatred”.
    When one looks at that, the answer is obvious. Of course, there are no circumstances in which such conduct could be taken to involve threatening or intending to stir up homophobic hatred. Therefore, I do not think the clause is necessary and I classify it as dealing with an attack on someone’s common humanity. For that reason, I believe that the Government are right. I recognise that it is a difficult issue and being a Liberal Democrat, I understand that the spirit of liberty is never being too sure if it is right.

    Lester’s point is that the law already adequately makes the distinction between incitement, and merely the expressing of a bigoted opinion.
    So all in all, if you read the article properly, you’ll see that this report (and it is a report – opinions are few and far between in the article) is entirely consistent with the Rob you know. Trivially and obviously so, in fact.
    What I don’t understand, is why – again – do I not get any benefit of the doubt. Are my bona fides not well established!?

    1. Its not at all a matter of what degree you have or haven’t done. Not at all. This blog would never sink to such intellectual snobbery, and I rather resent the implication.
      In fact, no formal study of the law is required to begin forming an opinion. A rough definition for seditious libel and criminal defamation was linked to in the very first paragraph. Not a perfect explanation, but enough to distinguish it from generic civil libel.
      And as I mentioned previously, I used very particular and neutral language when talking about homosexual hate speech, which anyone (regardless of educational levels) should have been able to see. It most certainly should have been evident on a second reading, which I would expect from someone who thought that I had written something inconsistent with the established political opinions of this blog!
      So you should say sorry… but for jumping the gun and assuming something unfair and negative.

  3. Well, Rob, I do take your point, but here’s the thing.
    An opinion worth its while (as you and I have clearly demonstrated here) must be based on a clear understanding of what is meant by the very specific legal terms “seditious libel” and “criminal defamation”, and not simply what those words mean in common parlance. It wasn’t clear which (if any) of the three links in the first paragraph would have led me to definitions of either of these terms (had I the time to click, and had I realised it was necessary to click on each and read at length), and it wasn’t clear from what you wrote that a lay-person’s understanding of the terms would not suffice. I assumed, rightly or wrongly, that no formal knowledge of the law would be required to either understand your post, or form an opinion. In this case, I was clearly wrong on that front, which is what prompted my somewhat devil’s advocate comment.
    I knew I must have misunderstood, as the unfair and negative reading was most definitely not in keeping with either the blog or the person that I know and love. So I can’t be sorry for jumping the gun, or for assuming something unfair and negative, but I am sorry for any seditious libel or defamation (of any kind) that may (quite understandably) have been inferred from my comment, and for any distress that may have ensued.
    With very best wishes, kindest regards, and much love

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