Blackadder Fights for Freedom of Speech

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An article by Jennifer Sym in The Scotsman on 7 December 2004 includes details of some proposed UK legislation that could have significant ramifications for Thelema.

The proposed legislation will create a new offence of incitement to religious hatred to protect faith groups from “attacks”.
Tue 7 Dec 2004

Blackadder Fights for Freedom of Speech
By Jennifer Sym, PA

Blackadder star Rowan Atkinson has helped launch a campaign against a new Government bill designed to punish extremists who incite religious hatred.

Today sees the second reading of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill, but the actor and comedian said elements of the legislation are a “wholly inappropriate response” and could stifle freedom of speech.

He was joined by a coalition of writers, representatives of the National Secular Society and a cross-party group of MPs at the House of Commons for the campaign launch last night.

The proposed legislation will create a new offence of incitement to religious hatred to protect faith groups, particularly Muslims, from attacks.

But the group believes there are already enough laws to deal with extremists, and they warn the Bill risks undermining free speech, the freedom of satirists, comedians and writers, and legitimate discussion about religion and religious practices.

Atkinson told the packed meeting last night: “To criticise a person for their race is manifestly irrational and ridiculous, but to criticise their religion, that is a right. That is a freedom.

“The freedom to criticise ideas, any ideas — even if they are sincerely held beliefs — is one of the fundamental freedoms of society, and a law which attempts to say you can criticise and ridicule ideas as long as they are not religious ideas is a very peculiar law indeed.”

He said he could think of “quite a few sketches” that he had performed that could come under the remit of the proposed new law “in the right hands and with the right energy”.

And he added that he sympathised and empathised with those who promoted the legislation, in particular British Muslims, but said: “I appreciate that this measure is an attempt to provide comfort and protection to them, but unfortunately it is a wholly inappropriate response far more likely to
promote tension between communities than tolerance.”

Atkinson, who said his plea was on behalf of authors, academics, writers, actors, politicians and comedians, previously spoke out three years ago when the Government tried unsuccessfully to introduce the same measure.

Those united in opposition to the bill at Westminster yesterday included columnist Joan Smith, Labour MP Alice Mahon, Shadow Attorney General Dominic Grieve MP, Professor Jeffrey Jowell, QC, from University College London, and Christian groups the Barnabas Fund and Lawyers Christian Fellowship.

The meeting was chaired by Lib Dem MP Dr Evan Harris, who said: “The real test for this I believe is the question of the Satanic Verses — what I call the Salman Rushdie test.

“There are two parts to that test. Firstly, whether such a book would be able to be published lawfully, regardless of literary merits and the level of offence; and secondly, without threats against the author, whether someone would want to write that book because of the fear of prosecution.”

He said after the meeting: “I have no doubt that the Government calculates that this is the way of appealing to the Muslim vote . . . given how it has antagonised them by its poor and wrongheaded foreign policy.

“Nevertheless it is dangerous and wrong to play politics in that way with freedom of expression.”

He said the group now plans to lobby the Government, backbench MPs and peers, and will seek to continue the media campaign about the issue.

The meeting heard the new offence could carry a sentence of up to seven years in jail.

A Home Office spokeswoman defended the Bill earlier today, insisting it would not interfere with the right to free speech.

She said: “There is a clear difference between criticism of a religion and the act of inciting hatred against members of a religious group.

“The incitement offensive has a high criminal threshold and prosecution requires the consent of the Attorney General.

“There has not a been a widespread sense that the existing offence has interfered with free speech and we are confident that an offensive incitement to religious hatred will not do so either.”

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