Britain’s most eclectic, unlikely campaign group - Defend Free Speech - has been launched this week, in a bid to halt the Government’s planned introduction of Extremism Disruption Orders (EDOs), which it says will threaten free speech.
The Defend Free Speech campaign is spearheaded by normally rival groups, the Christian Institute and the National Secular Society. It is backed by former shadow Home Secretary David Davis MP, Caroline Lucas MP, ex-Chief Constable Lord Dear – who will lead the campaign in the House of Lords – and human rights defender Peter Tatchell. Other supporters include Big Brother Watch, English PEN, the Manifesto Club and the Peter Tatchell Foundation.
The campaigners warn that the Government’s proposals to tackle extremism - in particular far right and Islamist extremism - are so broad and vague that they could penalise a range of dissenting and minority opinions.
They say the sweeping new powers will have a chilling effect on free speech because the Government has repeatedly failed to set out a definition of what will be considered extreme. Ministers have, however, confirmed that the legislation will clamp down on extremists even if they have not broken the law - a very sinister and menacing attack on liberty and human rights.
Simon Calvert, Director of Defend Free Speech, noted:
Defend Free Speech believes innocent people will fall foul of this unnecessary and dangerous piece of legislation. It will criminalise those who hold unpopular, unfashionable or challenging views. This could include pro- and anti-religious groups, trade unionists, environmental and animal rights activists, critics of UK foreign policy and people campaigning for LGBT rights. Indeed, we have already seen police urging teachers to report on parents who go to anti-fracking protests.Peter Tatchell, Director of the human rights lobby, the Peter Tatchell Foundation, added:
We are deeply concerned with the Government’s plans. The complete absence of safeguards and any clear definition of what is deemed to be extreme will have a chilling effect on free speech and campaigners.
We might be Britain’s most unlikely campaign group, but we are united in our belief that free speech is a vital civil liberty and must be protected. This legislation is badly conceived and will be bad for society.
Extremism Disruption Orders are too sweeping and too open to abuse. They risk transforming lawful activities into criminal offences in a way that threatens freedom of expression. The definition of extremism is far too wide and the threshold for an EDO is way too low. It could be imposed for words or actions that are ‘on the balance of probabilities’ extremist, rather than ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ extremist. Even the mere causing of offence or distress may be sufficient to trigger an EDO.Defend Free Speech highlights that earlier this year the Prime Minister David Cameron introduced the proposals with the chilling words: “For too long, we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our citizens: as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone.” He then went on to promise that the Government “will conclusively turn the page on this failed approach.”
Proponents of a range of unpopular, controversial and dissident views may be liable to an EDO, including opponents of western foreign policy, campaigners against nuclear weapons and energy, animal rights activists, people who express bigoted opinions and supporters of legitimate democratic liberation movements in the Western Sahara, Palestine, Syria, Balochistan and West Papua.
Hateful and extremist ideas should be challenged, protested and refuted. Bad ideas are most effectively countered by good ideas backed up by rational argument and evidence. Heavy-handed legal restrictions on free speech undermine the democratic, liberal values that extremists oppose and that we cherish.
Free speech is one of the most precious of all human rights and should be defended robustly. It can only be legitimately restricted by the law when it involves harmful libels, harassment, menaces, threats and incitements to violence.
Chancellor George Osborne wrote to a constituent that the remit of the legislation would go “beyond terrorism” and that it would seek to “eliminate extremism in all its forms.”
He went on to say that it would apply to “harmful activities of extremist individuals who spread hate but do not break laws.” His letter failed to define what harmful activities are or even what is extremism.
The Defend Free Speech campaign warns EDOs could be used to prevent individuals from going to certain places, mixing with particular people or even using mobile phones, the internet and social media.
Crucially, the group says the Government will use the lower civil law test of “the balance of probabilities” rather than the stronger criminal test of “beyond reasonable doubt” and that even the mere risk of causing “distress” could be enough to trigger the new powers.
To highlight their concerns, the campaign has published a number of examples on its website of people and groups it believes could be affected by EDOs: www.defendfreespeech.org.uk
It says the Government needs to urgently engage with campaigners, parliamentarians and pressure groups who could end up on the wrong side of the law if EDOs are approved without safeguards.
Caroline Lucas MP warned:
I’ll be taking every opportunity to oppose Extremism Disruption Orders when the relevant legislation comes before the House of Commons. This kind of draconian crackdown lacks a credible evidence basis, represents an infringement of basic rights, and may well actually be counterproductive.