Sexual Hatred

The Government has proposed new legislation to outlaw ‘incitement to sexual hatred’. This would extend the terms of the Racial and Religious Hatred legislation, and risks limiting the right to freedom of expression. In order to discuss the Government’s proposals, the Deputy President of English PEN, Lisa Appignanesi, was invited to meet Home Office minister Maria Eagle on November 13, 2007 for a briefing with Rowan Atkinson and Simon Fanshawe. This is her report of that meeting.

“Along with Rowan Atkinson, I was invited to a meeting with Maria Eagle, the Minister in charge of the new legislation which sets out to criminalise incitement to homophobia. I asked the writer and broadcaster, Simon Fanshawe, one of the founders of Stonewall, to come along with us. We are all concerned with the Government’s incursion into new hate speech laws, which could further constrict free expression.

The Minister wanted to hear our concerns. The legislation has not yet been fully drafted. It will be sent to us when it is. The schedule at the moment would have the legislation out of Committee by the end of November and into Parliament by the first week of December.

Technically defined as ‘inciting hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation’, the new legislation builds on the religious incitement laws PEN successfully campaigned against last year. The difference, as the Minister was careful to explain, is that the barrier here is set much higher. Only ‘threatening’ words and behaviour are to be criminalised: there is no attempt to ban jokes, ridicule or discussion, or impinge on imaginative freedom of speech. ‘Intent’ to stir hatred would also have to be proved.

We pointed out that in principle we are against any more constraints on free expression. The existence of a criminal law on the statute books would have a ‘chilling’ effect on the general climate, making media lawyers cautious and potentially engendering self-censorship on the part of writers, performers, etc. We also pointed out that gay writers are largely opposed to the legislation, while all of us fear that the list of possible groups needing protection from hate speech will grow and grow as the result of yet one more group being given protection in this way.

The Minister said that as she understood it, this legislation was the ‘last piece of the jigsaw’ and there are no plans to extend this to any other groups.

The devil will be in the detail of the legislation, as Rowan Atkinson said in his letter to the Times. We will monitor this detail carefully.”

Lisa Appignanesi

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