Being rude is not a crime

The civil servant who swore at Jews was odious but within his rights


Some of my best friends are Jews. Of course. And given what you're reading at the moment, so are yours. Here’s the thing: my friends have, on occasion, annoyed me. No big deal. Friends do that to each other sometimes. And what with some of them being Jews, that means that I’ve been annoyed by Jews.

Do you know what? I think I might have sworn at them. Bloody Cohen. I’ve probably even used the f word. And I expect that they’ve been offended by my language.

Here’s my question. Should I have been prosecuted because they took offence?

Shunned by any friend I insulted, perhaps. Humiliated within my social circle for being so uncouth, ok. But hauled up in court and fined or sent to prison? For being rude?

The freedom to give offence is a cornerstone of democracy

That is what happened last week to Rowan Laxton, a Foreign Office civil servant, who shouted “f------ Israelis” and “f------ Jews” in a gym and was convicted of racially aggravated harassment, and fined £350 with £500 costs.

Mr Laxton, is not someone with whom I would wish to spend any time. Given his behaviour, and what it revealed about his mindset, I would hope that he is dismissed from his senior job at the FCO.

But while it is tempting to give a cheer when a man with Mr Laxton’s apparent prejudices is brought to book, that is a temptation which should be resisted. Because his conviction stems from one of the most pernicious developments of recent years: the idea that we have a right not to be offended, and that the state should protect that right by criminalising those who speak their mind.

But the freedom to give offence is one of the cornerstones of democracy, without which freedom of speech is meaningless.

Cast your mind back to September 2005. The Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published a series of cartoons satirising Mohammed. They weren’t very funny, and they were clearly offensive to Muslims, who reacted with outrage.

They had every right to protest over something they found deeply insulting. That is one of the points of democracy and free speech: the freedom to protest.

But if free speech means anything it also means the freedom to publish cartoons which mock the belief that Mohammed rewards jihadists, just as it must also include the freedom to stage Jerry Springer — The Opera, which was the subject of protests by Christians, to perform plays such as Dishonour, against which Sikhs protested in 2005 at the Birmingham Rep — and to swear at Jews about Israel.

But there is a difference between protest and incitement, and some of the protesters outside the Danish Embassy did not simply carry out their democratic right; they dressed up as suicide bombers, wore fatigues and carried banners with calls to kill the non-believers who had insulted Islam. And what was the criminal justice system’s response to such flagrant criminality? There wasn’t one. Not one prosecution.

But there was a government response: it passed the Racial and Religious Hatred Act in 2006, which ensures that it is no longer just Satanic Verse- or Danish cartoon-style protesters who try to silence critics but the British state itself, which now has the power to lock up those who dare to mock Mohammed.

The Muslim Council of Britain had been lobbying for such a law since its inception in 1997. It first got its way in November 2001, with a clause in the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Bill outlawing incitement to religious hatred, explicitly included as a sop to buy the MCB’s acquiescence in the passing of legislation aimed at defeating terrorism.

It was under its equally wrong-headed successor, the 2006 Act, that Mr Laxton was prosecuted. And that is why, however odious his views, he should not have a criminal record.

    Last updated: 3:03pm, October 1 2009