‘Curtail the influence of hate crime entrepreneurs’ – there should be ‘no extensions to existing hate speech legislation’, says think-tank report
Given the Law Commission’s consultation on a wide range of proposals for the reform of hate crime laws, Joanna Williams explains in this report the complex “Acts of Parliament and official police guidance designed to clamp down on speech and behaviour deemed, in the eyes of victims or the perception of observers, to be motivated by hostility”.
By exploring the history, current context and impact of hate crime legislation and drawing upon interviews with academics and campaigners, the report explores the current challenges to equality before the law and free expression.
In this report, the author argues:
- HATE CRIME INCREASING? “It is in the interests of activists, campaigning on behalf of a particular identity group, to present hate crime – and therefore the need for protections and additional resources – as increasing.”
- NO EXTENSIONS: The report recommends: “There should be no extensions to existing hate speech legislation.”
- SPECIAL LEGAL PROTECTIONS? “No ‘characteristics’ should receive special legal protection in a way that violates the principle of equality under the law.”
- HATE CRIME ENTREPRENEURS: The report recommends that we should “Curtail the influence of hate crime entrepreneurs. Groups with a vested interest in presenting their members as victims of hate crime should not influence hate crime legislation.”
- ERODING EQUALITY BEFORE LAW/ CURTAILING FREE EXPRESSION: “If passed into law, the Law Commission’s hate crime proposals will erode the concept of equality before the law and curtail free expression. Every aspect of people’s lives will come under legal scrutiny.”
- CRIMINALISING A WIDE RANGE OF SPEECH AND BEHAVIOUR: “The combined effect of lowering the threshold of ‘hostility’ and broadening the criteria for protected characteristics will be to bring far more people into contact with the police and criminalise a far wider range of speech and behaviour.”
- LOWERING THE BAR: “The Law Commission’s proposed changes will lower the bar for hate speech. Any comment that is perceived to be an attack on a person’s racial identity, regardless of the actual words used or the intention of the speaker, will be assumed to be hate speech. Introducing greater subjectivity into the law, combined with a differential response based upon the skin colour of the victim/perpetrator, risks enshrining racial inequality in law. This could lead to greater criminalisation of white people and, at the same time, an understanding of black people as psychologically more vulnerable to provocation.”
- ASSUMPTIONS ON WOMEN IN SOCIETY: “The Law Commission’s proposals seem premised on a belief that women are an oppressed minority in society today. This takes no account of the legal equality and tremendous social progress women have made.”
- POLITICISED LAWS: “The uncritical use of testimony from hate crime entrepreneurs means that legal changes are being proposed not on the basis of objective evidence, but on the subjective demands of activists for recognition and affirmation of suffering. In this way, the law becomes politicised.”
- TRANSGENDER DEFINITIONS: The author looks at how the consultation paper draws instead upon a definition of transgender which “despite being presented neutrally in an introductory glossary, is highly contested.”
- INQUIRY: The report recommends, “Hold an inquiry to determine, review and potentially repeal all elements of the law that conflict with freedom of speech…”
- NON-CRIME HATE INCIDENTS: “The police should neither formally question people accused of, nor keep records of, non-crime hate incidents.”
- SUBJECTIVE ELEMENTS INTRODUCED INTO LAW: “Each new Act of Parliament and clarification of police guidance introduces a more subjective element into the law. The state, either through the CPS or the police, comes to define what is offensive, threatening or abusive.”
With attempts to clarify and make the law around hate speech more coherent – through the Hate Crime and Public Order Bill in the Scottish Parliament and the Law Commission in England and Wales – Joanna Williams identifies serious concerns about the impact of legislation on free speech.