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East London Humanists chair Paul Kaufman is worried about EDOs

PUBLISHED: 10:31 18 November 2015 | UPDATED: 10:31 18 November 2015

Archant

Home Secretary Theresa May has achieved the interesting feat of uniting the Christian Institute and the National Secular Society in common cause.

They have recently launched a joint campaign to oppose her proposals to curb free speech. Their disquiet is shared by many Muslims and those of other faiths and beliefs and across the political spectrum.

The intention of May’s so-called EDOs (Extremism Disruption Orders) is to stifle ‘extremist’ speech which falls short of amounting to a criminal offence. Freedom of speech is not of course an absolute right. Most sensible people agree there should be a limit where there is incitement to violence or disorder. Criminal laws already deal with this.

The devil (to coin a phrase) is in the detail of EDO’s. One difficulty is how ‘extremist’ views will be defined. A working definition used by the last government includes ‘vocal opposition to British values.’ Another difficulty is deciding whether the speech or actions ‘promote or justify’ hatred against certain persons or groups.

History should make us wary. Some may recall the futile attempts in the late ’80s to starve the IRA and Loyalists of the ‘oxygen of publicity’ by barring their voices from the airwaves. It ended in ridicule and was completely counterproductive. Anti-terrorist legislation has been used to disrupt legitimate dissent, for example to spy on lawful environmental or peace campaigners.

The irony is the proposals fundamentally undermine the very ‘British values’ of freedom of speech and belief which Theresa May purports to be defending. Of course in a land with free speech it is inevitable that people will take the opportunity to spout views which many of us will find offensive. However, the danger is that banning speech will drive such people underground. It will not change their views but will allow them to add charges of hypocrisy and persecution to their cause.

They will deny all of us the opportunity to engage in open public debate where we can challenge and expose hateful views for what they are. More from Paul

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