UKIP's muddled sense of free expression

In a recent press release, Janice Atkinson, a UKIP candidate for the European Parliament, calls on the police to prosecute Hope Not Hate and Unite Against Fascism protesters under ‘hate crime’ legislation.

Ukip demands police action to arrest so-called ‘anti-racist’ protestors
Janice Atkinson, as Ukip SE chairman, and MEP candidate, jointly with colleagues Patricia Culligan and
Alan Stevens, MEP candidates, have raised concerns about the way the police will deal with the protestors
at the Hove Ukip public meeting, on Tuesday, 13th May to be held in the Jewish Hall.
They have formally asked the chief constable to arrest any protestors who call our supporters ‘fascists’, hurl other abuse or any physical assault, for ‘hate crime’ or under the public order act.

We therefore call on the police to confirm that they will prosecute under ‘hate crime’ any individual or group who seeks to intimidate our supporters and candidates or at least under the Public Order offence under
Section 4, 4A or 5 of the 1986 Public Order Act.

This shows a remarkable lack of understanding of the law and of the principles of free speech.
First, you do not need to introduce he concept of ‘hate crime’ to trigger an arrest or prosecution under the Public Order Act.  Its enough that one or more people threaten an individual or use threatening language.  So if Hope Not Hate and Unite Against Fascism supporters are threatening UKIP candidates, that is thuggish behaviour unbecoming of the anti-fascist movement.  It is also against the law… and in so far as these sections of Public Order Act is a curb on free speech, I think restrictions on personal threats are legitimate.
But this UKIP press release asks something different.  Rather than asking the police to prosecute violence or threats of violence, it demands that the police intervene for name calling.  Calling someone a ‘fascist’ is a form of political speech.  Yes, it is highly emotive.  Yes, it is shocking.  Yes, it is said with the intention of disconcerting the people who hear it.  And yes, it might be an exaggeration.  But none of these mean that the cry of ‘fascist’ is a threat of violence.  It should be permitted in a democratic society, and it certainly is permitted under the Public Order Act 1986.
The other thing the Ms Atkinson’s statement does is make a claim to the highly subjective concept of ‘hate crime’  From a free speech point of view, ‘hate crime’ and ‘hate speech’ are deeply problematic because they ground the offence in the subjective opinion of the victim.  If the offended person says that they believe that they are the victim of hate crime… then they are such a victim, by definition!  The UKIP press release cites a page on the Goverment website:

Hate crime involves any criminal offence which is perceived, by the victim or any other person, to be motivated by hostility or prejudice based on a personal characteristic.

(Aside: is not all violent crime a form of ‘hate’?  Is a murder less of a murder, a rape a less of a rape, because the perpetrator was not an obvious racist?)
The UKIP candidates think that hate crime fits the verbal abuse they are receiving, because, well, the anti-fascists appear to hate them and calling someone a fascist is particularly unpleasant.  But the concept of hate crime is narrower than they suppose:

Hate crime can be motivated by disability, gender identity, race, religion or faith and sexual orientation.

A noteworthy omission is ‘political beliefs’.  Its simply wrong to deploy this concept in this situation.
There is a huge irony in UKIP candidates encouraging the police to investigate hate crimes, because these special protections for minority groups (race, religion, sexual orientation, &cetera) are precisely the kind of measures that social conservatives who join UKIP label ‘political correctness’ (Janice Atkinson’s website complains of ‘tokenism’, for example). But by seeking special protection from the same laws, these candidates are buying into the very discourse they claim to despise.
Free speech advocates approach this kind of issue with a certain weariness.  Hate speech laws are problematic because they go against the general principle that people are treated equally before the law.  When we grant special protection to certain types of groups or ideas, other groups seek the extension of those protections to apply to them, too.  In this case, a well meaning but poorly framed policy intended to combat racist speech, is now being used against anti-racist campaigners.  ‘Tis a hoisting with our own petard.

One Reply to “UKIP's muddled sense of free expression”

  1. One might reasonably assert that with their wish to suppress free comment, UKIP are authoritarian in their outlook but this is all of a piece with the persistent leitmotif of claims of victimhood whenever they and particularly their leader are challenged on any matter. Their cowardice about being a normal party is exposed whenever they cry foul when challenged or indeed run to the police for protection against a twitterer’s use of their own statements and literature For my part, I have always seen El Nigel’s party as saloon bar falangists – not really facists but if you look whom they sit with in the European Parliament you might be cynical about their denials.

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