Last week, a controversy erupted in Batley, Yorkshire, after a teacher showed his class a cartoon of the prophet Mohammed, during a discussion about the Charlie Hebdo massacre of 2015.
The school has many Muslim students and some of their parents were angry at the teacher for having done this. As we are all probably aware by now, some branches of Islam (not all) consider any depiction of the Prophet to be undesirable and blasphemous.
Where there is an alleged blasphemy, free speech rights are engaged, and people like me become motivated to opine. In this particular case, I was not so much motivated as mobilised: TalkRADIO called me at short notice to chat to Kevin O’Sullivan about it. Here’s our conversation, the first draft of my thoughts on the matter.
There is more to say, however. As I have come to realise whenever such controversies kick-off, there are usually several issues rolled up in the debate. I think it’s more intellectually honest to post ‘notes’ on what those issues are, rather than posting a piece of unequivocal click-bait that condemns one side or the other.
Parliament begins to debate the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill today. Following the scenes of heavy-handed policing at the vigil for Sarah Everard this weekend, there is perhaps a greater degree of attention being paid to the proposals than the government may have hoped for. The measures to update the common law offence of nuisance are a particular focus for those of us worried about state encroachment into civil liberties. Doing something that might annoy someone else should not be the basis of a criminal offence that carries a ten-year prison sentence.
On Tuesday evening I participated in the launch of Defining Islamophobia: A Contemporary Understanding of How Expressions of Muslimness are Targeted, a report published by the Muslim Council of Britain.
I wrote a short article for inclusion in the report, explaining why I think the new definition of Islamophobia that the report recommends would be a good thing for free speech. Ambiguity is the ally of censorship, and so a narrower definition of Islamophobia — one that is rooted in racism, rather than an opposition to Islamic ideas and theology — should reduce the chill on free speech.
Remember the Seyi Omooba controversy? Back in March 2019, she was cast as the lead in the Curve Theatre’s production of The Color Purple. Soon after this was announced, a Facebook post from 2014 emerged in which Omooba said that she believed homosexuality was a sin. Many people complained that someone with such beliefs would be cast to play an LGBT character such as Celie (who, after suffering abuse, falls in love with another woman).
Such was the furore that the theatre recast the role, and Ms Omooba was dropped by her agents. She took them both to an Employment Tribunal, claiming discrimination based on her religious beliefs. I wrote about the case at the time, asking whether homophobic views should receive any kind of special protection when veiled by religious belief. I also wondered why a five-year-old Facebook post had been ‘dredged up’ and whether Ms Omooba had ‘kept her views to herself’ or been sufficiently evangelical that it was appropriate that they affected her employment prospects.
Whenever there is a free speech controversy, many people like to parrot a common refrain: “Free speech does not mean freedom from consequences.”
This is true, but it’s also incomplete. Free speech does (or should) mean freedom from some consequences. For example, it can never be appropriate to murder cartoonists because of offensive drawings, or to issue a fatwa in response to a magical-realist novel that insults a particular religion.
Most free speech controversies that splatter themselves over the tabloids and Twitter timelines are really an argument about what consequences are appropriate for the perceived transgression.
Most people agree that the most extreme punishments are rarely, if ever, appropriate. No one should ever be subject to violence because of what they say or believe, and criminalising someone for what they have said should be limited to those who actively incite violence.
Previously on this blog, I’ve written about the need for activists to be an ‘awkward squad’ — a group of people who can be relied upon to kick up a fuss about small and innocuous infringements of human rights. If we wait for the egregious human rights violations to happen before we speak out, its already too late.
A good example of this might be the recent spat between Equalities Minister Kemi Badenoch MP, and The Huffington Post. Last week, the Minister tweeted out screenshots of an email exchange between her communications team and Nadine White, a news reporter at the website’s UK Bureau.
No-one has been censored here. The minister simply expressed public annoyance with the journalist’s slightly pushy email manner. So its not a free speech issue, right?