We should be free to ban haters like Trump
IFEEL LUCKY to live in a country where the right to speak one’s mind is valued highly. Our vibrant media is relentless in promoting the range of views that British society has to offer. The result is a healthy, if heated, debate over where we draw the line between what is free speech and what is hate speech.
It’s a fundamental question for today’s society: what should people be free to say, and when do words become so harmful that we need to impose restrictions. What is merely offensive and what could incite violence? Many argue that Britain should introduce an equivalent of America’s First Amendment — a fundamental and unequivocal right to free speech. Others say that free speech cannot be absolute. It must come with responsibilities. Often presented as black-andwhite, specific examples from the past year show the reality of the “free speech or hate speech” argument is more often a shade of grey.
Should the far right ever be allowed to march through the multicultural area of Golders Green? Should social media sites take action against persistent racist abuse? Should students be able to establish ‘‘safe spaces’’ on campus, to ‘‘protect’’ them from opinions they see as harmful?
The starting point for answering these questions must be the law.
The Human Rights Act 1998 establishes that freedom of expression is not absolute. It can be limited to protect ‘‘interests of public safety or national security.’’ The Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 denies entry to the UK to those who ‘‘incite racial or religious hatred’’. Lastly, the Equality Act 2010 states the need to tackle prejudice and promote understanding.
As always, law is all about interpretation. Words such as ‘‘hatred’’ or ‘‘prejudice’’ are far from straightforward. Additionally, laws relating to public order complicate the picture further. But that’s not to say they haven’t been used. More than 100 individuals have been banned from Britain under the provisions of these laws. These people range from homophobic hate preachers, to extremist bloggers such as Pamela Geller.
The case of Donald Trump once again reveals the challenge of resolving the ‘‘free speech or hate speech’’ question in Britain.
Recently, I called for Mr Trump to be banned from this country. This wasn’t because he offends me – although he does! Nor was it because I am scared of debate. I did so because I believed his words could have a dangerous, galvanising effect on the radicalised few within our fragile communities. In my time as a Camden Councillor, we acted to prevent individuals from promoting hate speech.
After complaints about hate speakers across the borough, we created a cross-party task force to tackle the problem. In practice, it meant speakers had to apply through the council before being given platforms to speak at certain locations. Those denied a platform included Holocaust deniers, religious speakers promoting misogyny, and groups advocating Islamophobia and antisemitism.
Now a Member of Parliament, I believe politicians of all stripes have a duty to protect citizens and foster good relations between diverse groups. For me, drawing the line between hate speech and free speech will look different in every case, but using the law to limit freedom of expression must depend on clear evidence that this is necessary to prevent inciting community tensions.
We must not pretend banning Trump would present a watershed moment in the British application of free speech laws. This is a is a recurring debate at the Home Office and one that regularly challenges our collective conscience. Banning Trump would a symbolic move to show that politicians are not above the strong hate laws that we are proud to have in our country. Our laws must not exempt any individuals, no matter how powerful or wealthy they are.
Upset: But should Donald Trump be banned for his hate-filled speeches?