If England Were an American University…

By June 9, 2005

…FIRE would give it a red light on speechcodes.org. The Guardian reports that the British government just unveiled a bill that would ban “incitement to hatred on the basis of religious belief.” While this bill is apparently intended as an effort to “win back Muslim voters alienated by the war in Iraq,” it is one that would not pass constitutional muster in the U.S., mainly because it is too overbroad and therefore has the potential to be abused to censor controversial speech rather than to effectively protect individuals from hatred and violence.

Britain’s home secretary, Charles Clarke, however, stated that the legislation will punish “only the incitement of hatred, and that satire, criticism and jokes will still be allowed.” How they will be able to clearly distinguish “incitement of hatred” from, for example, very heated discussion is my question. For such controversial matters as religious conflict and the war in Iraq, increasing opportunities for open and even highly emotional dialogue would probably be a better means of achieving understanding and diminishing hatred than attempting to suppress people’s speech to achieve some superficial appearance of harmony. Remember, if you put a lid on a pot of boiling water, it might cover up the heat but it only makes the water boil faster. If the water boils over, who’s to blame?