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11 April 2011

Banning things and liberal values

Why the French are wrong about face veils.

By David Allen Green

Just as someone once said that a nation can wage perpetual war for perpetual peace, some supposedly progressive people like to ban things just in order to make people free.

The latest example of such idiocy is the French ban on face veils, which takes effect today. Apparently legislating for what people wear, and invoking the coercive power of law to impose such legislation, is just the thing for a modern and secular society.

Of course, to use the criminal law in such a way is illiberal and inappropriate. It may well be that, at the extremes, the law should intervene to prevent the use of disguises for criminal activity. There are those who believe public nakedness should be banned on the basis of public decency. But any use of criminal law to govern the wearing of certain clothes, regardless of any question of criminality or decency, must be a disproportionate interference with a person’s legitimate autonomy.

Just as it is wrong to force someone to wear a veil, it is wrong to force someone not to wear one. If there are examples of women being forced to wear a niqab or the burqa, there is no reason to believe a ban on wearing such items in public places will have any effect other than leaving the women stranded at home.

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In any city you will see people with distinctive looks being stared at as they walk down the street. Some of these people may not actually want to be stared at, or at least not have their face exposed whilst being stared at. Unless there is a good and objective reason otherwise, they should be allowed to present themselves in public as they wish. The state does not necessarily know best.

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Many secularists and liberals would prefer a world where individuals do not want to hide their faces as part of their social interactions; many secularists and liberals would welcome a world without any face veils. But for such a world to be imposed by legal force makes it a secular and liberal world not worth striving for.

 

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman