Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
12 January 2010

The Luton protesters should not have been convicted

Fight bigots with rational argument, not repression

By Peter Tatchell

Yesterday, five Muslim men who protested at a homecoming parade by soldiers from the Royal Anglian Regiment in Luton in March 2009 were convicted under the Public Order Act.

The conviction of these five men, for using threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress, is a dangerous infringement of free speech and the right to protest. I abhor everything they stand for, but defend their right to freedom of expression. Even though what they said was offensive to many people, their right to speak their mind is one of the hallmarks of a democratic society.

They want to destroy our democracy and freedoms. I want to defend these values. If we silence and criminalise their views, we are little better than them. As the judge in the case, Carolyn Mellanby was wrong to rule that the people of Luton have a right to be protected against words they find insulting. There is no right not to be offended, as almost any idea can be offensive to someone. Many of the greatest thinkers in history have caused insult and offence, including Galileo Galilei and Charles Darwin.

The five convicted Islamists would like to censor us and put us on trial. We should not stoop to their level of intolerance. Democracy is superior to their proposed theocratic state and we need to prove it by demonstrating that we allow objectionable opinions and contest them by debate, not by repression and censorship.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A weekly dig into the New Statesman’s archive of over 100 years of stellar and influential journalism, sent each Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
I consent to New Statesman Media Group collecting my details provided via this form in accordance with the Privacy Policy

I strongly disagree with these men and their fundamentalist religion. They seek to establish an Islamist dictatorship in the UK. I reject the hatred and religious tyranny they espouse. They oppose women’s rights, gay equality, people of other faiths and Muslims who do not conform to their hardline interpretation of Islam.

But I defend their right to express their opinions, even though they are offensive and distressing to many people.

Insult and offence are not sufficient grounds, in a democratic society, to criminalise words and actions. The criminalisation of insulting, abusive or offensive speech is wrong. The only words that should be criminalised are untrue defamations and threats of violence, such as falsely branding someone as a paedophile, or inciting murder.

Some sections of the Public Order Act inhibit the right to free speech and the right to protest. They should be repealed.

Just as I defended the right to free speech of the Christian homophobe Harry Hammond, and opposed his conviction in 2002 for insulting the gay community, so I defend the right of these Muslim fundamentalists to make their views heard, provided they don’t incite violence. The best way to respond to such fanatics is to expose and refute their hateful, bigoted opinions.

Rational argument is more effective and ethical than using an authoritarian law to censor and suppress them.

Peter Tatchell is a human rights campaigner.petertatchell.net