11:17, November 04 79 0 theguardian.com

2020-11-04 11:17:03
UK lawyers uneasy about plan to prosecute hate speech at home

Proposals to prosecute individuals for hate crimes based on what they discuss in their own homes need to be more widely debated, free speech organisations have said.

The suggestion to remove the “dwelling” privacy exemption from criminal legislation is buried in a few paragraphs of the Law Commission’s 544-page consultation on hate crime published in September.

The commission said on Wednesday that it was “not intending for private conversations at the dinner table to be prosecuted as hate speech”, although that appears to be one possible consequence of the proposed change.

Until 1986, the offence of using words or behaviour intended or likely to incite racial hatred could only be committed in a public place. The scope was later expanded, but an exception remains “where words or behaviour are used or written material displayed within a dwelling, provided that they cannot be seen or heard outside.”

The proposal was spotted by the organisation Fair Cop, which campaigns against what it says is misuse of legislation to curb free speech. Sarah Phillimore, a barrister and member of the organisation, said it would encourage “state surveillance or people to inform on their friends. How else would they get the evidence? It will be like the East German Stasi security service.”

The Index on Censorship also raised concerns about the proposals. Its chief executive, Ruth Smeeth, a former Labour MP and member of the Jewish Labour Movement who received death threats during her time in parliament, said: “It’s extremely complicated and needs to be looked at in the round.

“We need to have a proper national debate if we are going to start putting restrictions on language like this. There could be unintended consequences. People have a right to debate issues at home. If someone reads from Mein Kampf at home because they are studying it, would they get reported to the police? Where do you draw the line between intellectual curiosity and crime?”

A spokesperson for the Law Commission said: “We found that the current law on incitement of racial and other forms of hatred is inconsistent and poorly targeted. Our proposals aim to clarify and improve the laws. We look forward to hearing from members of the public on how we can improve our proposals.”

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