When is Free-Speech a Hate Crime?

The bonfire-burning an effigy of Grenfell complete with victims, as some kind of entertaining joke, is the latest free-speech battleground according to some. It’s very like the Count Dankula case, that is it’s very complicated. And as I type, this case is referred for investigation, no actual crime necessarily. It’s a complex decision that could go either way, but whatever the verdict, the referral sparks the public thought process. [See BBC update in second post-note below.]

I might characterise the battleground as those that see free-speech as trumping all other responsibilities vs those that beg to differ, though as I say it is invariably more complicated and characterising it as a binary battle doesn’t do the topic justice.

Freedom of thought and expression is probably one of the most inalienable rights enshrined quite rightly in UN law. Of course, as soon as one expresses an idea – the content of which is entirely free of any constraint – the question of why, where, who, context arises. So the expression of free-thought is a decision to speak or act which comes with responsibilities.

So we also have the concept of hate-speech (and hate-acts expressing hateful ideas) captured in practical law, where the free-expression targets a class of victims, and their human rights become a consideration.

In the Grenfell case, the individuals (potentially) represented are the class of people living in that kind of accommodation under those conditions. Typically, in most of the ongoing debate around Grenfell, a group seen as a mostly ethnically and economically disadvantaged, compared to their institutional landlords. This is an ongoing class with ongoing rights for which we have ongoing responsibilities.

One commentator, Stephen Knight, compared the act with burning effigies of Guy Fawkes or Boris Johnson say. To focus the mind in making the contrast, I suggested replacing Grenfell and it’s victims with a representation of (say) an Auschwitz camp hut complete with Jewish occupants?

In the Fawkes / BoJo case, the point is respect for what the individual represents. We burn Fawkes to remind ourselves that despite our daily dissatisfaction with government, we respect the imperfect institution. We burn BoJo (or Maggie) for similar reasons – the individual hate-figure – because we can, to claim the freedom to do so, yet still respect the imperfect institutions in their being duly elected representatives. There is no disadvantaged class being victimised by the act of expression, indeed the symbolic opposite.

Switching out Grenfell for Auschwitz in the thought experiment would make the victims “semites” rather than a less well-defined presecuted class. We would be adding to the anti-semitism debate. But we still have a class of (potentially) persecuted victims, if less focussed.

At that point, as I say, it is very similar to the Dankula case (see the Baddiel analysis) the complexity of which hinges on understanding the motives (and audience) of the act as well as the nature of the target of the joke. And like that case, the private-party vs select-audience vs public-sharing is going to matter in terms of what the actors knew and intended. It’s the wide public sharing that creates the legal dilemma – between freedom and hatred. The jury is still out.

Conveniently, Stephen Knight had forgotten a one-to-one 10/12 tweet exchange we had yesterday on the need for respect in progressive dialogue. It’s about respect for the rules of engagement when other humans are on the other side of your position. I respect Stephen, I see the sincerity in his many religion vs atheism campaigns, even if I think he’s misguided in his extreme-freedom position. Enough respect for a nuanced dialogue beyond simply “taking no prisoners” on a point of disagreement.

I won’t post the whole twitter exchanges, but you’ll find them in the threads above and below these two pairs:


[Post Note: and of course there is a whole twitter thread following this post, including a pile-on of ad-hominems and “likers” for his subsequent Socratic questions and straw-men (all of which I’ve answered) with no other constructive contributions. And of course, in real time, only two clicks on the actual post. Ended for now with this ….

I’ve said what needed saying.]

[Post Note: And on the specifics of this case – updated BBC story – clear grounds to check possible hate crime. Making this opinion public:

“That’s what happens when they don’t pay their rent.”

That use of “they” & “their” does suggest deliberate and objective reference to the victim group, as I suggested.]

[Post Note: And more … the public conversation, unrelated to the specific dialogue above:

“It depends”. It’s complicated.
This one will run with good humour for a while yet

[Post Note: Stephen Knight – GodlessSpellchecker – has subsequently posted his own thoughts, though sadly ignoring – positively rejecting! ridiculous! incompetent! (disrespecting?) – the whole dialogue from my side. Anyway, he’s clearly parked in the “society is sick for sanctioning hate-speakers joke” camp. Any future follow-up will need to be a new post I fear … once I’ve considered if he has any new arguments … Follow-up post here: “Are There Any Limits to Free Expression?]

Also published on Medium.

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