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“Why freedom of speech is vital” — interview given to a school pupil

Freedom to express your ideas underlies what it means to be a human being, and is the bedrock of political freedom.

Summary

Recorded 17 February 2021. Posted 28 March 2021.

My website intentionally makes it easy for complete strangers to contact me. In February, I received an email from a teenage school pupil in Singapore.

He was doing a class assignment on freedom of speech. As part of this he was going to interview someone opposed to freedom of speech, and somebody supportive of freedom of speech. His internet searching had (correctly) found me as an ardent supporter of freedom of speech.

The interview took place over Zoom. I recorded it for my website and you can watch it below.

As he is a minor, I am not publishing his name and I have anonymised the video by:

  1. Deleting the sound recording of him asking me questions and substituted text slides where the questions are transcribed.
  2. “Censored” the video by blacking out his image. I made the mistake of not using Zoom’s “speaker view” during the interview, forgetting that this would mean both of us were shown throughout the recorded video. In future, if similar circumstances arise, I will remember!

I have also published the transcript of his questions below the video. Lower down, I have reproduced the UK legislation regarding the incitement of racial hatred and incitement of religious hatred, which I mention during one of my answers.

Video - 20 minutes

Transcribed questions

  1. Do you think that there is a difference between free speech and hate speech?
  2. Some people say that slurs against groups of people, such as sexist, racist, transphobic, or homophobic slurs should be banned, by amending the US Constitution and revoking the 1st Amendment. What is your view?
  3. A 2017 survey analysed 1,250 American college students’ attitudes toward free expression. The results of the survey show that a majority of students on college campuses self-censor in class, support disinviting guest speakers they disagree with, and don’t know that hate speech is protected by the U.S. Constitution’s 1st Amendment. Why do you think so many people of my generation are against freedom of speech?
  4. Do American colleges need reform, and should they employ more professors who have right wing views so that students learn to see both sides?
  5. On Twitter and other social media companies, there has been recent censorship of people who have far-right viewpoints, or even conservative viewpoints, like Former President Donald Trump, and even two of his supporters who were quoting Q-Anon ideas, Michael Flynn and Sidney Powell. Should big tech be doing such things?
  6. But is it moral for them to do such things as banning Donald Trump?
  7. Many Democrat politicians have made similar statements in the BLM (Black Lives Matter) protests, calling on people to join protests which ended up as riots. Twitter has not banned any of them but has only banned people from the right wing. Does Twitter have a political bias when it comes to banning people?
  8. Do you think that it is moral to use micro aggressions, threats, and racial / sexual slurs against people?
  9. Many countries where there has been historic racism have laws preventing racist slurs, like South Africa has regarding Black people and Germany has regarding Jews. There have been African slaves in Great Britain as well as the USA. Do you think people saying things like the N-word should be a punishable offense? Will this help to lead to more racial harmony?
  10. So do you think it is moral to say the N-word in a non-hateful way? Do you think people of non-African descent should be saying the N-word?
  11. But if a law is created prohibiting use of the word, will that lead to more racial harmony in these countries?
  12. In the country I live in, Singapore, there are defamation laws, barring racial slurs, fake news, protesting in groups without government permission whether peacefully or violently, and criticizing the government. We enjoy one of the best racial relations in the world, have one of the cleanest countries, and the government is able to work efficiently without having to worry about the retaliation of the people. China has even more extreme laws, and they have done so well in the last few decades that they have become the second-biggest economy in the world. Do you think that defamation laws play a part in helping a country thrive?
  13. Do you think that America should follow Singapore and ban protesting without government permission? For example, in Singapore with COVID-19 it is against the law to leave home without wearing a face mask. If this was legislated in America, many people on the far right would protest this issue. If you do that in Singapore, you are jailed. Also, the BLM issue would never happen in Singapore, nor would the Capitol riot [on 6 January]. Would it help the American economy or America as a whole if the law on protesting was changed [to be like Singapore]?
  14. Would restricting freedom of speech and criminalising protests make the country safer? Regardless of whether it is moral or not, will it help the country to become a safer place?

The UK legislation on incitement of racial hatred and incitement of religious hatred

Racial hatred

The offense of inciting racial hatred has been on the statute book since 1986. The relevant law is reproduced below.

Racial hatred - Public Order Act 1986, Section 19.

19 Publishing or distributing written material.

(1) A person who publishes or distributes written material which is threatening, abusive or insulting is guilty of an offence if—

(a) he intends thereby to stir up racial hatred, or

(b) having regard to all the circumstances racial hatred is likely to be stirred up thereby.

(2) In proceedings for an offence under this section it is a defence for an accused who is not shown to have intended to stir up racial hatred to prove that he was not aware of the content of the material and did not suspect, and had no reason to suspect, that it was threatening, abusive or insulting.

(3) References in this Part to the publication or distribution of written material are to its publication or distribution to the public or a section of the public.

Religious hatred

Specific court cases established that incitement of hatred of Sikhs or Jews fell within the 1986 legislation, because unlike other religious groups, Sikhs and Jews are regarded both as religious groups (membership by belief in the religion) and also regarded as racial groups (membership by virtue of descent).

However Muslims are clearly not a racial group. Accordingly there was extensive lobbying to create a new offence of incitement of religious hatred. When Parliament debated the draft legislation, there was great concern that it might inhibit freedom of speech, especially the freedom to criticise religions.

Accordingly, the legislation contains extensive protections for freedom of speech. I have coloured that provision in red below, to make it easier to see amongst the rest of the legal text.

The legislation also requires the consent of the Attorney General before a prosecution can be brought. I have also coloured that in red below.

Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 Section 1.

1 Hatred against persons on religious grounds

The Public Order Act 1986 (c. 64) is amended in accordance with the Schedule
to this Act, which creates offences involving stirring up hatred against persons
on religious grounds.

SCHEDULE Hatred against persons on religious grounds

In the Public Order Act 1986 (c. 64), after Part 3 insert—

“Part 3A Hatred against persons on religious grounds

Meaning of “religious hatred”
29A Meaning of “religious hatred”

In this Part “religious hatred” means hatred against a group of persons defined by reference to religious belief or lack of religious belief.

Acts intended to stir up religious hatred
29B Use of words or behaviour or display of written material

(1) A person who uses threatening words or behaviour, or displays any written material which is threatening, is guilty of an offence if he intends thereby to stir up religious hatred.

(2) An offence under this section may be committed in a public or a private place, except that no offence is committed where the words or behaviour are used, or the written material is displayed, by a person inside a dwelling and are not heard or seen except by other persons in that or another dwelling.

(3) A constable may arrest without warrant anyone he reasonably suspects is committing an offence under this section.

(4) In proceedings for an offence under this section it is a defence for the accused to prove that he was inside a dwelling and had no reason to believe that the words or behaviour used, or the written material displayed, would be heard or seen by a person outside that or any other dwelling.

(5) This section does not apply to words or behaviour used, or written material displayed, solely for the purpose of being included in a programme service.

29C Publishing or distributing written material

(1) A person who publishes or distributes written material which is threatening is guilty of an offence if he intends thereby to stir up religious hatred.

(2) References in this Part to the publication or distribution of written material are to its publication or distribution to the public or a section of the public.

29D Public performance of play

(1) If a public performance of a play is given which involves the use of threatening words or behaviour, any person who presents or directs the performance is guilty of an offence if he intends thereby to stir up religious hatred.

(2) This section does not apply to a performance given solely or primarily for one or more of the following purposes —

(a ) rehearsal,

(b) making a recording of the performance, or

(c) enabling the performance to be included in a programme service;

but if it is proved that the performance was attended by persons other than those directly connected with the giving of the performance or the doing in relation to it of the things mentioned in paragraph (b) or (c), the performance shall, unless the contrary is shown, be taken not to have been given solely or primarily for the purpose mentioned above.

(3) For the purposes of this section —

(a) a person shall not be treated as presenting a performance of a play by reason only of his taking part in it as a performer,

(b) a person taking part as a performer in a performance directed by another shall be treated as a person who directed the performance if without reasonable excuse he performs otherwise than in accordance with that person's direction, and

(c) a person shall be taken to have directed a performance of a play given under his direction notwithstanding that he was not present during the performance;

and a person shall not be treated as aiding or abetting the commission of an offence under this section by reason only of his taking part in a performance as a performer.

(4) In this section “play” and “public performance” have the same meaning as in the Theatres Act 1968.

(5) The following provisions of the Theatres Act 1968 apply in relation to an offence under this section as they apply to an offence under section 2 of that Act—

29E Distributing, showing or playing a recording

(1) A person who distributes, or shows or plays, a recording of visual images or sounds which are threatening is guilty of an offence if he intends thereby to stir up religious hatred.

(2) In this Part “recording” means any record from which visual images or sounds may, by any means, be reproduced; and references to the distribution, showing or playing of a recording are to its distribution, showing or playing to the public or a section of the public.

(3) This section does not apply to the showing or playing of a recording solely for the purpose of enabling the recording to be included in a programme service.

29F Broadcasting or including programme in programme service

(1) If a programme involving threatening visual images or sounds is included in a programme service, each of the persons mentioned in subsection (2) is guilty of an offence if he intends thereby to stir up religious hatred.

(2) The persons are —

(a) the person providing the programme service,

(b) any person by whom the programme is produced or directed, and

(c) any person by whom offending words or behaviour are used.

Inflammatory material
29G Possession of inflammatory material

(1) A person who has in his possession written material which is threatening, or a recording of visual images or sounds which are threatening, with a view to —

(a) in the case of written material, its being displayed, published, distributed, or included in a programme service whether by himself or another, or

(b) in the case of a recording, its being distributed, shown, played, or included in a programme service, whether by himself or another,

is guilty of an offence if he intends religious hatred to be stirred up thereby.

(2) For this purpose regard shall be had to such display, publication, distribution, showing, playing, or inclusion in a programme service as he has, or it may reasonably be inferred that he has, in view.

29H Powers of entry and search

(1) If in England and Wales a justice of the peace is satisfied by information on oath laid by a constable that there are reasonable grounds for suspecting that a person has possession of written material or a recording in contravention of section 29G, the justice may issue a warrant under his hand authorising any constable to enter and search the premises where it is suspected the material or recording is situated.

(2) If in Scotland a sheriff or justice of the peace is satisfied by evidence on oath that there are reasonable grounds for suspecting that a person has possession of written material or a recording in contravention of section 29G, the sheriff or justice may issue a warrant authorising any constable to enter and search the premises where it is suspected the material or recording is situated.

(3) A constable entering or searching premises in pursuance of a warrant issued under this section may use reasonable force if necessary.

(4) In this section “premises” means any place and, in particular, includes —

(a) any vehicle, vessel, aircraft or hovercraft,

(b) any offshore installation as defined in section 12 of the Mineral Workings (Offshore Installations) Act 1971, and

(c) any tent or movable structure.

29I Power to order forfeiture

(1) A court by or before which a person is convicted of —

(a) an offence under section 29B relating to the display of written material, or

(b) an offence under section 29C, 29E or 29G,

shall order to be forfeited any written material or recording produced to the court and shown to its satisfaction to be written material or a recording to which the offence relates.

(2) An order made under this section shall not take effect —

(a) in the case of an order made in proceedings in England and Wales, until the expiry of the ordinary time within which an appeal may be instituted or, where an appeal is duly instituted, until it is finally decided or abandoned;

(b) in the case of an order made in proceedings in Scotland, until the expiration of the time within which, by virtue of any statute, an appeal may be instituted or, where such an appeal is duly instituted, until the appeal is finally decided or abandoned.

(3) For the purposes of subsection (2)(a) —

(a) an application for a case stated or for leave to appeal shall be treated as the institution of an appeal, and

(b) where a decision on appeal is subject to a further appeal, the appeal is not finally determined until the expiry of the ordinary time within which a further appeal may be instituted or, where a further appeal is duly instituted, until the further appeal is finally decided or abandoned.

(4) For the purposes of subsection (2)(b) the lodging of an application for a stated case or note of appeal against sentence shall be treated as the institution of an appeal.

29J Protection of freedom of expression

Nothing in this Part shall be read or given effect in a way which prohibits or restricts discussion, criticism or expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule, insult or abuse of particular religions or the beliefs or practices of their adherents, or of any other belief system or the beliefs or practices of its adherents, or proselytising or urging adherents of a different religion or belief system to cease practising their religion or belief system.

Supplementary provisions
29K Savings for reports of parliamentary or judicial proceedings

(1) Nothing in this Part applies to a fair and accurate report of proceedings in Parliament or in the Scottish Parliament.

(2) Nothing in this Part applies to a fair and accurate report of proceedings publicly heard before a court or tribunal exercising judicial authority where the report is published contemporaneously with the proceedings or, if it is not reasonably practicable or would be unlawful to publish a report of them contemporaneously, as soon as publication is reasonably practicable and lawful.

29L Procedure and punishment

(1) No proceedings for an offence under this Part may be instituted in England and Wales except by or with the consent of the Attorney General.

(2) For the purposes of the rules in England and Wales against charging more than one offence in the same count or information, each of sections 29B to 29G creates one offence.

(3) A person guilty of an offence under this Part is liable —

(a) on conviction on indictment to imprisonment for a term not exceeding seven years or a fine or both;

(b) on summary conviction to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months or a fine not exceeding the statutory maximum or both.

29M Offences by corporations

(1) Where a body corporate is guilty of an offence under this Part and it is shown that the offence was committed with the consent or connivance of a director, manager, secretary or other similar officer of the body, or a person purporting to act in any such capacity, he as well as the body corporate is guilty of the offence and liable to be proceeded against and punished accordingly.

(2) Where the affairs of a body corporate are managed by its members, subsection (1) applies in relation to the acts and defaults of a member in connection with his functions of management as it applies to a director.

29N Interpretation

In this Part—

 

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