The House of Commons must uphold free speech – by Edward Leigh MP

portrait-edwardleighPersonally I am totally opposed to homophobia, however I believe people must be free to express their views, providing they do not set out to incite hatred of any group.

Last week the House of Commons debated these matters in the one hour’s debate on the free speech amendments in the Coroners’ and Justice Bill.

In all such cases, those complained against found that, although no prosecution was ever brought, their freedom of speech and freedom of religion had already been infringed by the fact that they lived under the cloud of a police investigation. This is exactly what some people want. They use the tactic of complaining to the police, and publicizing the subsequent investigation, as a way of intimidating people. This is not a liberal approach. It is not the British way.

I know that nobody truly believes in totally unfettered freedom of speech. We all believe there must be some limits. The argument comes down, not to whether you have limits at all but what those limits must be. My own view, and I suspect the view of most MPs if we were all allowed a free vote to express it, is that we do not want to see people investigated merely for discussion or criticism of sexual conduct.

That is all the free speech clause seeks to protect. It simply says,

“for the avoidance of doubt, the discussion or criticism of sexual conduct or practices or the urging of persons to refrain from or modify such conduct or practices shall not be taken of itself to be threatening or intended to stir up hatred.”

Note the key phrase “of itself”. The clause does not carve out an exception. The Government agree that discussion or criticism alone are not caught by their new offence. The clause merely indicates to campaigners, to police and to prosecutors that there is no point making or investigating complaints about mere discussion or criticism, because they are not illegal.

Recent history proves we need this. We must not encourage the culture of ‘offendedness’ where people see political advantage in going public with how appalled they are by somebody else’s statements, in order to try to get the law to silence them.

So far, most of the people who have been subject to vexatious complaints to the police have been lucky. I do not want to leave it to luck. I want to see a free speech clause. For that reason I hope the Lords sticks to its guns.


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