Free Speech Victory in UK: You May Now (Legally) Insult Me

The British are free to insult each other once again! Amazing as it seems, for over 25 years the use of "insulting words or behaviour" has been a criminal offense in England and Wales. However, on Monday, January 14, the British government agreed to remove the word "insulting" from section 5 of the Public Order Act after a longstanding campaign by civil rights groups.

The "hate speech" provision, apparently intended to tackle hooliganism at soccer matches, has been used with impunity in recent years and those who have spoken out on topical and controversial issues have been arrested, investigated and even prosecuted under the law.

For example, in 2009, hotel owners Ben and Sharon Vogelenzang were taken to court after a Muslim guest complained that she was insulted by the owner's breakfast conversation on religion. Although acquitted in court, the Christian couple lost their business as a result of the trial. In 2011 Christian cafe owner, Jamie Murray was interrogated by the police for over an hour. His alleged crime was to display Bible verses on a television screen in his cafe. Apparently someone was offended by the New Testament scriptures and the police duly investigated, informing him that continued display of the Bible verses could lead to his arrest. And just last year, pro-life campaigners Andy Stephenson and Kathryn Sloane were taken to court after their pro-life message was said to have been "insulting" to members of the public. As with many of the cases, they were acquitted in court, but the fact that they had to go to great lengths to defend themselves clearly has an overall chilling effect on free speech.

Unfortunately, the U.K. law is part of a much wider problem in Europe – where all the countries have adopted "hate speech" laws in one form or another.

For example, an "insult" is also considered a criminal offense in countries such as Germany, where it is defined as "an illegal attack on the honour of another person by intentionally showing disrespect or no respect at all." In other countries, such as Poland or Cyprus, "offending religious feelings" is unlawful and in places such as Austria and Bulgaria, infringing "human dignity" is a criminal offense. As in the U.K., these laws are frequently used to shut down debate. Discussing the Muslim Prophet Mohammed and his marriage to Aisha is certainly off the table in many European countries, as is the Christian view on homosexuality – even if you're a Bishop.

How Europe ended up this way involves a look back in time. In the aftermath of the Second World War, the nations of the world gathered together in the newly formed United Nations to draft international human rights treaties intended to limit the reach of the state. Along with all the other Western democratic nations, the U.K. and U.S. fought hard for freedom of speech protections on the international stage, principally against severe restrictions being put forward by the Soviet Union and her allies, all of whom attempted to increase the reach of the state.

The U.N. library record of the debates certainly makes for interesting reading. At every occasion the European Communist nations sought to prohibit "advocacy of hatred," while the liberal democratic nations consistently argued in favor of free speech. Although things could have been worse, many of the Communist-backed amendments were still written into the international treaties, creating an obligation on the countries that signed them to adopt restrictions on speech. And, whether Communist regime or democratic, this is exactly what Europe did.

Despite the principled defences of free speech that were given on behalf of many nations during the drafting process of the international documents, "hate speech" laws gradually spread throughout the liberal democratic nations that had once opposed them. And so began a steady process of speech restrictions backed by criminal sanction.

The U.S., on the other hand, was not so easily persuaded, and in the second half of the twentieth century its free speech position was developed rather than watered down. Famous Supreme Court decisions such as Brandenburg v. Ohio and R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul simply emphasized the growing differences between the former free speech allies of Western Europe and the U.S.

Hence, as the U.S. rejected the notion of state-censorship, Europe followed a different course, and today, hundreds of criminal restrictions on speech can be found across the continent.

Thankfully, however, this week's free speech victory in the U.K. means there is one less to worry about. Perhaps it may even signal the turning of the tide.