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Lord Lucas: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for giving us this opportunity. I am also grateful to the Minister, because I cannot think that it was anyone else who, having listened to all the excellent arguments in this House, persuaded the Prime Minister to miss that vote the other day. In particular, I remember the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Plant of Highfield, pointing out that there was no difference between a religion and its adherents, and that if you insult a religion you hurt its adherents. That has been perfectly demonstrated by this episode of the Danish cartoons.

Islam has suffered no damage at all from the publication of those cartoons; the hurt in the Muslim community has been immense. That is the nature of these things, and why we are so well rid of the Bill as it was originally drafted. We must be extremely careful to guard our freedom of speech. It is a difficult thing to do. I was immensely inspired by the speech of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham. It was well thought out, and I shall read it again because I am sure that I have not absorbed all its wisdom on first hearing. I thought that its summary was that this is the perfect place to discuss free speech, because the House of Lords gets it right; the way that we conduct ourselves is the way that everyone else should. You do come to believe that after a while here, so I shall not disagree with him on that.

It went deeper, however. Before I turn to where I agree with the right reverend Prelate, I will say that two parts of our society have come out of this latest episode extremely well. The first is the Muslim community in general. The way that it has reacted to this—responsibly, as part of our British community—has given me enormous comfort after all the difficulties and tribulations we have been through over the past few years. There will always be elements who try to disrupt things, but that is not the image which sticks in my mind.

The British press have also come out of this episode well. As the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, said, the cartoons are tasteless and insulting. They are of no value in themselves. To reprint them would be an act of sheer gratuitous insult. In the majority community, we have to get used to accepting insult. We do not wish to curtail people's rights to publish cartoons about George Bush, the Prime Minister or whoever. When we are in that sort of position of power, these are ordinary parts of daily life, and so they should be. But we have to be conscious that when a community is in a minority and finds itself somewhat embattled, then
 
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to hurt them is to hurt them excessively. We have to be extremely careful and judge well when we take an action that might do that. The press have judged that extremely finely. I take great comfort from that because the press has been growing up during the past 20 years and it has gained enormous power. This is a sign that it is learning to use it responsibly.

The group which has not come out well from this episode—and from many previous episodes, as noble Lords have said—is the Government. It is the Government's responsibility to set the tone for the defence of the freedom of speech. It will not be Ministers who react in each instance. It is their servants and their acolytes who will react in the way they perceive their masters as wishing them to act. The tone that this Government have set over the years has been one of denial of freedom of speech.

The police's reaction to the demonstration outside the Danish embassy and their allowing that sort of threat to go unpunished are an enormous suppression of freedom of speech. If that sort of frightening activity was allowed to go on there, as it was allowed also in Birmingham, and if police act in that way when faced with mob violence, then those who are the likely target of that mob violence feel threatened and their free speech is suppressed. It is important that the Government enforce the boundaries. I think we can all agree, at least in their gross aspect, on what is a reasonable reaction and what is a reasonable expression of freedom speech. Carrying placards suggesting that people be murdered or indulging in violence which results in the closure of a play both clearly go over the mark, and neither was properly dealt with by the police, because they felt that there would be no support from the Government if they had taken the sort of action that they should have taken.

This is a Government who, through a succession of Bills of which the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill was only the most recent example, have been seen to care little for freedom of speech. Even the little examples confirm that impression, such as that of the lady who was arrested and charged for reading out the names of the dead opposite the Cenotaph. Whether the police arrest her or stand by her quietly and say, "Right, you've done your bit. Go on", is a matter on which they exercise their discretion. They exercise that discretion in the understanding of what their political masters wish them to do. The climate is set by the Government, and the Government are setting it against freedom of speech. I really hope that all this cumulative distress will result at some stage in the Government changing their attitude, or to us to changing the Government.

3.59 pm

Baroness D'Souza: My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness, Lady Knight of Collingtree, for initiating this debate, coming as it does in the context of the imminent enactment of recent legislation to which the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, referred.

This House has repeatedly asserted its belief that freedom of expression and its corollary, the right of access to information, is a vital individual right.
 
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I would go so far as to say that it is the cornerstone of democracy, since without information and the freedom to use it to secure other rights, governments quickly become unaccountable, and tyranny can and often does follow. History is replete with examples of how censorship is not only a function of the slide from democracy, but also a cause of it. That is why one has to be vigilant about any curtailment of freedom of expression. Yet it is argued, by some of the more popular press in particular, that hate speech should not be allowed. I think we have to go back to first principles and the laws that govern the difficult area of where the line should be drawn between the expression of emotionally strong views and dangerous incitement, and by whom. Here I declare an interest as a former director of Article 19, an anti-censorship organisation.

It is the context that determines whether speech is likely to cause criminal action. The famous case of falsely crying "Fire!" in a crowded theatre as compared to shouting from a street corner is still relevant. The argument is that in the former case it is reasonable to expect that injury will occur and that in the latter injury would be unlikely. The key feature of the latter example is that there is the opportunity to avoid both the speech and its effects. That landmark US Supreme Court case has been followed by many others that have helped to build jurisprudence that defines hateful or offensive or insulting speech by its effect on the target and the extent to which the intended victim of such verbal assault is able to avoid it. Thus, rather simplistically, almost anything can be said or written if there is a clear choice about hearing or reading it. If one can walk away from Hyde Park Corner, close the book, not buy the theatre or cinema tickets, then why should speech be censored?

The exception to this rule occurs when speech, or any other form of expression, occurs within a highly charged context where the speech could itself whip up such strong feeling that damaging action is likely to occur and where those who become emotionally charged have the access and the wherewithal to cause criminal harm. The terrible example of our time is the Rwanda genocide of 1994 where the highly popular local radio orchestrated the mass killing by the Hutus of their more moderate kinsmen and of the Tutsis, a massacre that had been planned for some months previously and that took place in an extremely tense context in which tribal violence, if not common, was certainly within everyone's living memory.

The furore about the offensive cartoons first published in Denmark last year is alarming but presents an interesting example of the limits of our tolerance. The demonstrations in central London by angry Muslims were indeed offensive to many. The placards were extraordinary, calling for the murder of those who insult Islam. But should they be banned, or should the more extreme demonstrators be charged? No one was obliged to attend the demonstration. We may argue that it should not have taken place, but it did, and as far as one can tell it was not an occasion to prepare further criminal action. It was an expression of hurt and anger. Who is to say that that should be suppressed, with possibly far worse consequences?
 
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The Abu Hamza case is quite different. Here, young and impressionable men were obliged by tradition to go to the mosque every week and thus to hear outpourings of hate against specific targets in British society. We now learn that Abu Hamza had the wherewithal to provide these young men with the means, either through training abroad or weapons, to carry out criminal actions. That is not free speech; it is criminal incitement and has rightly been judged as such.

Alien speech is uncomfortable for all of us, as is the expression of violent emotions, but I believe that it is precisely in such moments of heightened feeling that we must remember the basic right to free speech and look carefully at the context in which it occurs. Above all, by permitting these kinds of demonstrations to take place, Britain is encouraging potential political discourse and solutions in place of violence.

4.04 pm


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