Thursday, 20 December 2012

Councillors and the right of free speech

Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties. John Milton

Along with Milton we prize freedom of expression most highly. Indeed a copy of his book Areopogitica was the symbol of office for the President of the Liberal Party -and which of us who heard David Penhaligon accept the office and the book with ever forget his rendering of the title. 

Today the crude moral micro management of Thatcherism and her offspring -New Labour - has compromised that essential freedom. and the battle is on to reclaim the ground. For example The DPP has commented on Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 which lists “insulting words or behaviour” as grounds for arrest and prosecution.  This has led to a number of arrests with worrying implications for free speech.  Atheists have been questioned by police for insulting religion, while the religious have been arrested for insulting gay people.  Famously, student Sam Brown was arrested for calling a horse “gay”.

Another area is in relation to Social Media where the DPP Kier Starmer has again been active. He has said when issuing new guidance: : "These interim guidelines are intended to strike the right balance between freedom of expression and the need to uphold the criminal law. The full consultation document is here Essentially it sets a much higher bar, merely being insulting or satirical is not a crime and unlikely to lead to prosecution. Added to all this is the loosley drafted anti terrorist laws that have been widely interpreted and really have the potential to curb free speech to an unacceptable level.

Finally we have Leveson. Personally I am reconciled to some statutory basis for the Media's code of practice. I shall be much happier if we had something like the US Ist Amendment in the Bill of Rights that guarantees free expression. That really would put an end to the attempts to muzzle councillors when they say or write something that irks others. The standards system established by new Labour was a nightmare. It would be naive to assume that all the problems have been sorted.

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