26 April 2013
I have lost count of the number of occasions when mosques and universities have been attacked for having had someone speak on their premises who has expressed unacceptable views. I suspect it is very rare for an organisation to deliberately host a speaker who is expected to make unacceptable remarks.
However it is very easy to see how such incidents happen accidentally. For example universities rarely invite speakers to events; normally invitations are issued by the many different student societies that hold their meetings on the university's premises.
In my view, where an owner of premises is providing them to other groups which are themselves organising meetings and inviting speakers, it is not feasible for the premises owner to vet the many people who get invited each year to speak on its territory. Accordingly I started to think about what would be feasible, and decided that, for libel reasons, only the Government can provide a solution.
I recently published my idea in a comment piece on Conservative Home which is reproduced below.
This led Hugh Muir to interview me and write a piece in the Guardian on 29 April 2013. The Guardian newspaper also mentioned it in its main front page story on Saturday 25 May 2013 after the Woolwich murder; an internet version of the story is available. The 25 May Guardian story was based on a short telephone interview, and fails to make clear that this is my personal proposal, and not a Conservative Muslim Forum proposal.
Mohammed Amin is Vice Chairman of the Conservative Muslim Forum. He is writing in a personal capacity. Follow Mohammed on Twitter.
We are a country that rightly values freedom of speech. Accordingly there will be many people who make remarks on public platforms which are far beyond the bounds of acceptability in a pluralistic society while not being remarks that constitute criminal offenses.
As a result, the following story recurs periodically in the press:
Mr X who has a track record of divisive hate-filled speeches has spoken to an audience on the premises of Organisation Y. When challenged, Organisation Y responds that it knew nothing of Mr X’s record and reminds everyone that it does not have the resources to assess the histories of the many people who are invited to speak on its premises.
Such stories will continue to recur until some action is taken. What is required is a list of people regarded as unacceptable hate preachers that an organisation such as Y can use to check against the names of proposed speakers on its premises. Such a list would have other potential uses. For example:
No private sector organisation could maintain such a list. Including Mr X’s name on the list would immediately create exposure to a libel action. Defending such a libel action would involve playing with fire, given the exposure to heavy costs and the payment of damages. I believe that the Government however could give itself statutory exemption from libel claims, and it is therefore the right party to maintain such a list.
The broad operations of such a register are outlined below.
The Government would add Mr X to the list (published on the internet), with full details of the hate speech that had led to his inclusion.
There would be no legal consequences from inclusion. Mr X would be free to speak at any venue where the owner of the premises would permit him. Provided the list had credibility, most respectable organisations in the UK could be expected to refuse Mr X permission to speak on their premises.
Crucially, if the Government is slapdash about listing people and cites evidence which most people do not regard as serious instances of hate speech, the list will fall into disrepute and organisations will start to ignore it. Accordingly the government would be incentivised to only list particularly egregious speakers where there is incontrovertible evidence of their utterances, and those utterances are universally deplored.
In principle, there are several reasons why Mr X might contend that he should not be included in the list.
If Mr X did not make the comments cited against his name, he should write to the Government and explain this. If the Government did not rectify the list by removing Mr X, he could appeal to a tribunal which would decide the facts using the balance of probabilities test i.e. Is it more likely than not that Mr X made the remarks which the Government has cited against his name? The only role of the tribunal would be to decide whether Mr X had actually made the remarks. Assessing their unacceptability would be a matter for users of the list as explained below.
If the tribunal finds that Mr X did not make the alleged remarks, his name would be removed from the list. The tribunal would have no power to award costs, and appeals to the courts would only be possible on matters of law, not matters of fact.
Mr X may consider that the comments were not hate speech and that the Government has put an unwarranted interpretation upon them. He would be permitted to write a rebuttal of a specified length which would sit on the register alongside the comments cited by the Government.
In this case Mr X would remain on the list. It would be up to list users to decide whether they concurred with the Government’s listing of Mr X in the light of his rebuttal. As indicated above, if the Government lists people “willy nilly” the register will fall into disrepute, so in that sense it has built in safeguards against the Government listing people without adequate grounds.
Mr X may accept that he made the cited remarks in the past, but state that they no longer represent his position. His recantation would be posted alongside his past comments, and the Government would move his name to a part of the list comprising names removed by virtue of recantation.
Having people publicly recant previous unacceptable comments should be regarded as a positive outcome all round. Having recanted, Mr X would no longer be classified as a hate preacher. His previous history would remain in the recantation section of the register, and he would be listed again if he resiled from his recantation.
Hate preachers come from all religions. Furthermore people can “preach hatred” without claiming to speak on behalf of any religion. All such people would be eligible for inclusion on the register if their comments were of sufficient seriousness.
The register would not limit freedom of speech. Listed people would be free to speak wherever they could find a platform. However it would prevent organisations inadvertently giving a platform to undesirable people as a result of ignorance of their past utterances. The register would be relatively simple to manage, and the costs would be minor in comparison with the benefits.
There were a number of comments from Conservative Home readers. Many were against the proposal regarding it as illiberal. I recognise that concern but hope that those opposing the proposal will not in future complain when some hapless organisation finds that it has inadvertently hosted someone expounding unacceptable views.
There were also a few people making the kind of anti-Islamic comments I am inured to, even though my piece is neutral regarding religion.
The comments can no longer be read as the website as deleted them as part of its housekeeping.