PEN sends open letter to Gordon Brown and John Reid

Following the acquittal of BNP leader Nick Griffin on charges of inciting racial hatred, English PEN has written an open letter to Gordon Brown and John Reid urging the government to refrain from further legislation in this deeply sensitive area. Click here to read a response from Tom McNulty.

Dear Dr Reid,

Whilst English PEN deplores the politics of the BNP and the language it uses against Muslims and many other groups, we would urge you not to use the verdict of the Leeds Crown Court Jury as an occasion to revisit the racial and religious hatred legislation in an attempt to widen its reach. This would prove as socially divisive as the trial itself has proved, if not more so.

As we – and our fellows throughout the creative sector – argued while the Bill was making its way through Parliament, crminalizing so-called religious hate speech can all too easily end up pitting the faiths against one another. Australian legislation and the ensuing trials have proved this emphatically. Each faith, at its radical end, contains hatred of another.

Win or lose, highly publicized trials inevitably make heroes or martyrs of their accused. This serves only to exacerbate existing social divisions and certainly does nothing to bring communities together.

The current case against the BNP leaders failed not because of any fault of legislation, but simply because the CPS did not have enough evidence to bring a case. The BNP meeting was a private event. When Lord Ahmed – who sometimes seems to suggest that any general religious hatred legislation is designed solely for the protection of Muslims – calls for tougher legislation, what he fails to realise is that if private gatherings are to be targeted under religious hatred, this may well also include what Imams say in mosques.

There is much to be done to make our society one to which Muslims feel they wholly belong. Hate speech laws should not be a primary instrument in that task. When we battled for the inclusion of what became known as the PEN Protection of Free Expression clause in the Religious Hatred Bill, it was in order to ensure that our great British tradition of free imaginative expression was not endangered by the kind of chilling constraints and creeping censorship that a broadly conceived law would have brought. It was also to give people of all faiths and none the freedom we often need to speak out against injustice.

We trust that you will not rise to the populist bait of introducing coercive legislation which will only turn communities against each other and may silence important individual voices.

We note that the guidelines for the Racial and Religious Hatred Act have not yet been issued and look forward to contributing to their formulation.

In the new year PEN is planning to launch a Free Speech Commission that will travel the country in order to investigate what ‘offence’ and ‘responsibility’ mean in our plural society. In the process we hope to open up the conversation about the underlying importance of free imaginative expression to a representative democracy. We hope to involve you in this project as it develops.

Yours sincerely,

Lisa Appignanesi, Deputy President, English PEN

Chair, Free Expression is No OFFENCE

Jonathan Heawood, Director, English PEN

Monica Ali

Rowan Atkinson

Terence Blacker

Nicolas Hytner

Salman Rushdie

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