Civil Liberties

Inciting Censorship

Brits vs. blasphemy


British Prime Minister Tony Blair's government has added a measure to the proposed Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill that would create a new offense: "incitement of religious hatred." This follows two notable events last year: a play called Bezhti that upset many Sikhs (the playwright went into hiding) and the BBC broadcast of Jerry Springer: The Opera, which prompted some Christians to burn their TV licenses. (British televisions are licensed by the state, which uses the proceeds from the fees to fund the BBC.)

English PEN, the writers' group, protested the proposed law and requested a meeting with the home secretary. Salman Rushdie complained too. In a letter to The Guardian, the author of The Satanic Verses noted that "the continuing collapse of liberal, democratic, secular and humanist principles in the face of the increasingly strident demands of organised religions is perhaps the most worrying aspect of life in contemporary Britain."

Home Office Minister Fiona Mactaggart responded with a letter of her own: "For many years the law has established that free speech rights do not licence people to stir up hatred of others on the basis of their race. Now we are seeking to offer the same protection to people targeted because of their faith." Such sentiments prompted the author Timothy Garton Ash to suggest, in The Guardian, that "historians may look back on the last three decades of the 20th century as a high point of freedom of expression, never to be achieved again. There may be a net gain in other public goods–such as civic peace–but there'll be a net loss of liberty."?