MPs debate Bill containing threat to free speech
MPs will today debate a justice Bill which contains plans to delete a free speech protection added last year to a controversial ‘gay hate’ law.
The free speech protection was added last May to the new offence of ‘incitement to homophobic hatred’ after a late night victory in the House of Lords. It makes it clear that criticising homosexual practice or urging people to refrain from such conduct will not, in itself, be a crime.
The protection was included in the offence because of fears the law could be used as an excuse to silence religious views about sexual behaviour.
However, clause 58 of the Government’s new Coroners and Justice Bill, which has its Second Reading in the House of Commons today, seeks to remove this protection.
The offence of inciting homophobic hatred catches any words or behaviour which are threatening and intended to stir up hatred. It carries a maximum seven year prison sentence.
The wording of the free speech protection, added by former Home Secretary Lord Waddington, is as follows: “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”.
In 2006, a more wide-ranging free speech amendment was added to a parallel law against inciting religious hatred, but no such attempt has been made by the Government to remove it.
The Commons debate will start no earlier than 3.30pm and will debate the general principles of the whole Bill, of which deleting the free speech protection is just one clause.
Mike Judge, Head of Communications at The Christian Institute, said: “In theory, if the protection was removed Christians would remain free to express their beliefs about homosexual practice.
“The law ought only to catch the use of threatening words or behaviour which have the intention of stirring up hatred. No genuine Christian should find themselves falling foul of that.
“But we believe a free speech protection should nevertheless remain attached to the offence to clarify an area of the law which could easily be used as a pretext for silencing Christian views on sexual behaviour.
“Given the level of intimidation faced by Christians on the issue of homosexual practice, an explicit free speech protection is a reasonable approach.”