Be­ing rude is not a crime

The Jewish Chronicle - - Comment&analysis - STEPHEN POL­LARD

SOME OF my best friends are Jews. Of course. And given what’s in your hands at the mo­ment, so are yours. Here’s the thing: my friends have, on oc­ca­sion, an­noyed me. No big deal. Friends do that to each other some­times. And what with some of them be­ing Jews, that means that I’ve been an­noyed by Jews.

Do you know what? I think I might have sworn at them. Bloody Co­hen. I’ve prob­a­bly even used the f word. And I ex­pect that they’ve been of­fended by my lan­guage.

Here’s my ques­tion. Should I have been pros­e­cuted be­cause they took of­fence?

Shunned by any friend I in­sulted, per­haps. Hu­mil­i­ated within my so­cial cir­cle for be­ing so un­couth, ok. But hauled up in court and fined or sent to prison? For be­ing rude?

That is what hap­pened last week to Rowan Lax­ton, a For­eign Of­fice civil ser­vant, who shouted “f------Is­raelis” and “f------Jews” in a gym and was con­victed of racially ag­gra­vated ha­rass­ment, and fined £350 with £500 costs.

Mr Lax­ton, is not some­one with whom I would wish to spend any time. Given his be­hav­iour, and what it re­vealed about his mind­set, I would hope that he is dis­missed from his se­nior job at the FCO.

But while it is tempt­ing to give a cheer when a man with Mr Lax­ton’s ap­par­ent prej­u­dices is brought to book, that is a temp­ta­tion which should be re­sisted. Be­cause his con­vic­tion stems from one of the most per­ni­cious de­vel­op­ments of re­cent years: the idea that we have a right not to be of­fended, and that the state should pro­tect that right by crim­i­nal­is­ing those who speak their mind.

But the free­dom to give of­fence is one of the cor­ner­stones of democ­racy, without which free­dom of speech is mean­ing­less.

Cast your mind back to Septem­ber 2005. The Dan­ish news­pa­per Jyl­lands-Posten pub­lished a se­ries of car­toons satiris­ing Mo­hammed. They weren’t very funny, and they were clearly of­fen­sive to Mus­lims, who re­acted with out­rage.

They had ev­ery right to protest over some­thing they found deeply in­sult­ing. That is one of the points of democ­racy and free speech: the free­dom to protest.

But if free speech means any­thing it also means the free­dom to pub­lish car­toons which mock the be­lief that Mo­hammed re­wards ji­hadists, just as it must also in­clude the free­dom to stage Jerry Springer — The Opera, which was the sub­ject of protests by Chris­tians, to per­form plays such as Dis­hon­our, against which Sikhs protested in 2005 at the Birm­ing­ham Rep — and to swear at Jews about Is­rael.

But there is a dif­fer­ence be­tween protest and in­cite­ment, and some of the pro­test­ers out­side the Dan­ish Em­bassy did not sim­ply carry out their demo­cratic right; they dressed up as sui­cide bombers, wore fa­tigues and car­ried ban­ners with calls to kill the non-be­liev­ers who had in­sulted Is­lam. And what was the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem’s re­sponse to such fla­grant crim­i­nal­ity? There wasn’t one. Not one prose­cu­tion.

But there was a gov­ern­ment re­sponse: it passed the Racial and Re­li­gious Ha­tred Act in 2006, which en­sures that it is no longer just Satanic Verse-or Dan­ish car­toon-style pro­test­ers who try to si­lence crit­ics but the Bri­tish state it­self, which now has the power to lock up those who dare to mock Mo­hammed.

The Mus­lim Coun­cil of Bri­tain had been lob­by­ing for such a law since its in­cep­tion in 1997. It first got its way in Novem­ber 2001, with a clause in the Anti-Ter­ror­ism, Crime and Se­cu­rity Bill out­law­ing in­cite­ment to re­li­gious ha­tred, ex­plic­itly in­cluded as a sop to buy the MCB’s ac­qui­es­cence in the pass­ing of leg­is­la­tion aimed at de­feat­ing ter­ror­ism.

It was un­der its equally wrong­headed suc­ces­sor, the 2006 Act, that Mr Lax­ton was pros­e­cuted. And that is why, how­ever odi­ous his views, he should not have a crim­i­nal record.

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