Friday, June 25, 2021

The government's hate speech proposals

Today the government released its proposals to criminalise hate speech. There's a full discussion document here, but the key change is to replace the current clause in the Human Rights Act with a wider one:

The law would change so that a person who intentionally incites, stirs up, maintains or normalises hatred against any specific group of people based on a characteristic listed in Proposal One, would break the law if they did so by being threatening, abusive or insulting, including by inciting violence
When I first read this in a news story this morning, I was worried by the presence of the word "insulting", because merely insulting people shouldn't be a criminal offence. But the first clause makes all the difference: this isn't about preventing offence, but about preventing hatred and social exclusion. As I noted when discussing the Human Rights Commission's initial report on the issue, laws against hate speech are about protecting people's right to participate in society and be themselves. Public insults and expressions of hatred can interfere with people's use of public space. If you can't go about your everyday business without being insulted and harassed, then that seems to be the sort of interference the law should protect against.

Exactly which characteristics will be protected is still up in the air, but it is going to be wider than the current grounds of "colour, race, or ethnic or national origins", and I'd expect it to at least include religion, sexual orientation, and gender identity. Religion is likely to be the most controversial of these: we don't want to re-establish blasphemous libel by the back door, or give a licence to religious fanatics to silence others (as they have attempted in the past). But I don't think it will be too difficult to craft appropriate legislation if the clear focus on the problem being inciting hatred and discrimination and preventing participation is maintained.

Also in the proposal: explicitly including gender expression and gender identity as prohibited grounds of discrimination in the Human Rights Act. The government already considers these to be covered by the ban on discrimination on the basis of sex, but given the rise in anti-trans bigotry, has now come round to the position that this needs to be stated explicitly. The protection is something we should all welcome, and should make it crystal clear that this bigotry is unacceptable.