Friday, January 18, 2008

Chilling Speech Across The Pond

The problem of the UK's hate speech laws codified as part of the Public Order Act of 1986 is that they are being used to enforce the ethos of multiculturalism and politically correct speech. (You can find an extensive discussion of the hate speech laws in this post discussing the case of the blogger Lionheart) Such laws limit criticism, they forestall debate, and they have a chilling effect on free speech. Even if one is never convicted and senteced to the maximum of seven years in prison, there is still the police investigation, the hiring of a solicitor, and the worry about what may happen. And the way the system works, anyone can make a complaint that they are offended by your speech. There is no cost for making a complaint. That said, the story of Robin Page that appears in today's Daily Mail is a cautionary tale:

Mr Page, 64, a farmer, conservationist, columnist for The Daily Telegraph, and the chairman of the Countryside Restoration Trust, became the focus of police attention after his comments at a country fair in September 2002.

He claims that in order to gain the attention of listeners at the gathering in Frampton-upon-Severn, Glos, he started in a "light-hearted fashion".

His opening remark was: "If you are a black, vegetarian, Muslim, asylum-seeking, one-legged lesbian lorry driver, I want the same rights as you."

No one present expressed any concerns at the time but a letter of complaint was later received by police, and another person wrote to say he disagreed with the remarks made.

He was arrested the next month, and a further five months later was contacted at his farm in Cambridgeshire and asked by two officers from Gloucestershire to attend an interview at a police station.

At the station he declined to answer questions without a lawyer and was arrested.

He was put in a cell and told that he would have to stay overnight if he wished to wait for his solicitor, but after 40 minutes agreed to be interviewed without legal representation.

Mr Page said: "I was told I had committed a 'hate crime', interviewed under caution and given police bail."

The BBC claimed that he had been arrested for a "race speech" and he felt the incident was potentially damaging to him professionally and as a district councillor for 30 years.

No charges were brought but he was never given any explanation.

Under Freedom of Information disclosures he discovered that the Attorney General had given the opinion "no crime committed".

Mr Page was also astonished to discover that his name was put on a "Homo-phobic Incidents Register".

He also took exception to an internal email from the arresting officer - after requesting a change of bail renewal date to allow him to go on a journalistic trip to Kenya, the sergeant wrote: "Let's hope he gets eaten by a crocodile."

Mr Page said: "Thank goodness for the Data Protection Act and my advice to anybody who feels that they have been stitched up is to use the Act to get to the real facts.

"It is absolutely outrageous. In my view it clearly shows that I was arrested for political reasons simply because my views on the countryside were not appreciated. I was not guilty of any crime."

Read the entire article. Mr. Page eventually sued the police for false detention and received 2,000 pounds - some five years after his arrest.

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