Meet Razwan Javed, 30, Kabir Ahmed, 27, Ahjaz Ali, 41, Umer Javed, 37, and Mehboob Hassain, 44. These five men are the first to be prosecuted under the Britain’s new law that prohibits the mere incitement of hatred, which prosecutors claim the men violated in July by distributing a leaflet titled The Death Penalty? outside a mosque in Britain’s Derby, southeast of Manchester, and mailing it via post. As you might’ve guessed, the pamphlet calls for gays to be executed. With a court hearing set for Feb. 14, are we about to witness one of the world’s first instances of cracking down not just on hate crimes, but broad hate speech?
In the U.S., only certain types of speech have been declared to be outside the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment. Things like shouting “fire” in a crowded theater, or distributing “obscene” material (child porn, anyone?). But Britain’s new law, passed last year, says the very communication of supporting violence against a class of people is criminal.
The case will hinge on what the leaflet actually says. Does it target people specifically? Or just all gays? Does it say what should be done to them, such as stoning or hanging? Or just that they should be exterminated?
The crucial determination will be deciding whether somebody saying — or in this case, printing and distributing — words like “I want all gays to die” is against the law. Does that constitute the type of hate speech Britain’s new law hopes to stamp out?
While the intention of a law like this is admirable — for it places the livelihood of a targeted group of people above hatemongering — I take seriously any government’s attempt to determine what I may or may not say. While the law is targeted at homophobes, placing LGBTs in a protected class, does that make it more acceptable to say “I want all women to die?” How about, “Anybody over 65 should be put to death”? I don’t have all the facts here (namely, what was written in the pamphlet), but this doesn’t appear to be on par with Uganda’s Rolling Stone newspaper identifying specific gays to be killed, which amounts to a glorified hit list.
Just how far should the criminal code go to fight a climate of homophobia, even if it means free speech is curbed?