Free-speech supporters and anti-discrimination advocates are at an unlikely crossroads with recent decisions being made in the United Kingdom. Laws have already been enforced that forbid racial and religious persecution, but now the legislation is taking the policies one step further by prosecuting those who express comments inciting hatred (or comments that officials deem hate-inciting) against homosexuals.
This article in the Daily Mail explains more about the new gay harassment law, which states that perpetrators who engage in the harassment of gay, lesbian and bisexual individuals will face a maximum of seven years in jail. According to Justice Secretary Jack Straw, the law will become an amendment to the country’s Criminal Justice and Immigration Act.
The London Times ran this headline about the proposed law: ”Christians fear jail for criticizing gays”. According to the story, “Evangelical Christian groups are giving warning that Christians who say gay sex is wrong could be sent to prison for up to seven years.”
An article from Yahoo! News emphasizes the concerns from those who disapprove of homosexuality, those who criticize homosexuals but do not provoke hatred and those who tell homosexual-themed jokes. And as gay-rights campaign groups such as Stonewall support the legislature’s decisions, Christian groups remain uneasy about the law. Stonewall chief executive Ben Summerskill told the press, “We refuse to accept any longer that there’s no connection between extreme rap lyrics calling for gay people to be attacked or fundamentalist claims that all gay people are pedophiles, and the epidemic of anti-gay violence disfiguring Britain’s streets.” But for individuals like Colin Hart, director of the Christian Institute, who hold to conservative Christian beliefs that homosexuality is a sin, the law is a cause for disagreement. “People shouldn’t face prison for expressing their sincerely held religious beliefs,” he said in the story.
While the law originally warned these individuals of the criminalization of such speech, a Ministry of Justice spokeswoman said, “The new law would not prohibit criticism of gay, lesbian and bisexual people, but it would protect them from incitement to hatred against them because of their sexual orientation.” Even though these actions may no longer be prohibited, officials say that the final decision lies in the hands of police.
As of just a week ago, another law in England and Wales also went into effect, which outlaws the incitement of religious hatred, making it a criminal offense. While Jews and Sikhs were originally protected under a former Act, Muslims and Christians were not. An online news article from the Home Office, a department that protects the public from terrorism, crime and antisocial behavior, states that the Racial and Religious Hatred Act forbids “threats and other intimidating statements intended to stir up hatred against people because of their religious beliefs” or “lack of religious belief.” Threatening words and behavior fall under the forbidden category, but according to an outline of the bill, prohibiting or restricting “discussion, criticism or expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule, insult or abuse of particular religions” is not directly prohibited.
Interestingly enough, the line being drawn seems to waver. Questions as to what constitutes as hate speech have many people concerned. At what point does speech incite hatred? To what extent is the freedom of speech hindered? When the Act was first proposed back in 2005, a commenter on the BBC website sarcastically wrote, “Maybe we should just pass a law making all insults of any kind illegal. That way it would protect me from being insulted as a Christian, as someone who is overweight, as someone from Liverpool and as someone who is lousy at golf! I could also sue you if you insulted me for writing this response. I’m sure the world would be a better place for it.”
A 2004 article from the Pakistan Christian Post outlines the story of two Christian pastors who were taken to court in Australia after they made critical statements about the Islamic faith on a website and in a seminar. The article also posed the question: “Could the same thing happen in the U.K.?” Indeed, the Racial and Religious Hatred Act and, even more recently, the gay harassment law, suggests they can, if the criticism also incites hatred.
In the United States, incidents relating to racial, religious and sexual differences frequently occur in the media. Retired Miami Heat guard Tim Hardaway grabbed headlines when he expressed his opposition to gay basketball players. “You know, I hate gay people, so I let it be known. I don’t like gay people, and I don’t like to be around gay people,” Hardaway said. Though he faced overwhelming criticism for the statements, no criminal prosecution was taken, and Hardaway later issued a public apology.
High-profile television and radio commentators including Don Imus and Bill O’Reilly were also under fire recently after they made statements that many people considered racist. And though media watchers were quick to condemn such speech, in the United States, it is not a criminal act.
Free-speech supporters and anti-discrimination advocates from the United States are wrestling with the same questions as those in the U.K. Would hate-speech laws threaten an individual’s freedom of speech, or would these laws legitimately protect people of different backgrounds from hatred? Where is the line between protecting individuals’ safety and limiting the expression of moral and religious beliefs? Could the same thing happen in the United States?