Government’s planned Extremism Disruption Orders could “seriously damage” free speech and outlaw Charlie Hebdo, warns Christian Institute
The Christian Institute has warned the Government’s proposed Extremism Disruption Orders could have many unintended consequences, will seriously damage free speech and could even outlaw the distribution of Charlie Hebdo in the UK.
The group will say that many ordinary people will welcome the Government’s commitment to prevent the spread of Islamic extremism both at home and abroad.
But what is known about the proposed Extremism Disruption Orders (EDOs), as well as “countless precedents”, suggests that they will be badly defined and will be used to target many more people than intended by the Government.
Simon Calvert, Deputy Director for Public Affairs at The Christian Institute commented: “While everyone applauds the principle of tackling Islamic extremism, comments by David Cameron and other senior members of the Government suggest EDOs will exceed even Labour’s notorious Racial and Religious Hatred Bill or Section 5 of the Public Order Act. Both of these laws had to be rewritten by the House of Lords – in the face of Government opposition – because of their detrimental effect on free speech.”
“Last year the Government was forced to back down on proposals to outlaw ‘being annoying in a public place’. Now it looks like they are returning to their theme with a vengeance.”
The group, which has a record of defending free speech, cites a letter from the Chancellor George Osborne to a constituent, which confirms that the Home Office’s new counter-extremism strategy seeks to go “beyond terrorism” and “eliminate extremism in all its forms”.
The Chancellor’s letter says EDOs would be triggered by “harmful activities of extremist individuals who spread hate but do not break laws”. The letter fails to define what makes an individual an ‘extremist’, or what constitutes ‘spreading hate’.
Mr Osborne writes, “For the Court to impose restrictions upon an individual, it would have to be persuaded that the individual was participating in activities that spread, incite, promote or justify hatred against a person or group of persons on the grounds of that person’s or group of persons’ disability, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, and/or transgender identity.
“The Order will also be used to tackle those venues and facilitators that help extremists to continue their activities as it will be possible to use an EDO to restrict an individual’s ability to host extremists.”
Crucially, The Christian Institute highlights that, according to reports, the authorities would only have to show that the individual had fulfilled the above criteria on the civil legal test of “the balance of probabilities” rather than the stronger criminal test of “beyond reasonable doubt”.
It is reported that even the mere risk of causing “distress” would be enough to trigger the new powers. Like ASBOs, EDOs would be civil orders imposed by a High Court upon application by the police.
Mr Calvert continued: “We understand the Prime Minister has made clear that he wants to protect ‘freedom of worship’. But freedom of worship is not the same as freedom of religion. It is much narrower.
“The Christian Institute warns the Government not to rush through these measures, but to engage with groups with a track record of defending free speech.”
“In the current climate, there is a real risk that EDOs will be used to clamp down on legitimate expressions of dissent.
Mr Calvert concluded: “If the Government does not ensure that there are adequate safeguards then, because of the low burden of proof, it is perfectly plausible that comedians, satirists, campaign groups, religious groups, secularist groups, and even journalists could find themselves subject to these draconian measures.
“It would be easy to make the case that the distributors of the Charlie Hebdo magazine were ‘spreading hate’ on the grounds of religion. How ironic it would be if extremists could use EDOs to achieve what violence could not – the silencing of criticism of their beliefs.”
Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director of the National Secular Society, who has worked successfully with The Christian Institute in previous free speech campaigns, has also said: “The Government should have every tool possible to tackle extremism and terrorism, but there is a huge arsenal of laws already in place and a much better case needs to be made for introducing draconian measures such as Extremism Disruption Orders, which are almost unchallengeable and deprive individuals of their liberties.”