The National Secular Society on defending free speech

The National Secular Society is a founding member of the Defend Free Speech campaign, formed in response to Government plans to introduce sweeping new powers to combat extremism.

Extremism Disruption Orders (EDOs) will allow courts to ban someone from speaking in public or on social media, restrict their freedom of association, and ban them from taking up various positions – such as a school governor.

The proposals risk capturing a whole range of behaviour and speech which fits under a broad, ill-defined conception of ‘extremism’.

George Osborne has said that for a court to serve an Extremism Disruption Order an individual must have participated in “activities that spread, incite, promote or justify hatred against a person or group of persons on the grounds of that person’s or group of persons’ disability, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, and/or transgender identity.”

This is an unclear definition which sets a very vague threshold. We are also particularly concerned that in an effort to appear ‘fair’ and avoid the impression that EDOs only or primarily target Islamist extremists, that the broad measures will catch, for instance, Christian street preachers or those defending the right to criticise and ridicule religion. Evangelical street preachers have already faced prosecution for their sermons. Additional restrictions on free speech can only further jeopardise and chill freedom of expression.

As a society we are already far too prone to silencing opinions in fear of them causing ‘offence’, and it seems inevitable that EDOs will encompass people far beyond the Government’s intent.

We are also concerned by reports that the orders would be applied on the “balance of probabilities”, rather than the higher standard required in criminal trials of “beyond reasonable doubt”.

We recognise the need to tackle religious extremism, but existing powers already exist to meet this end. For example, the Public Order Act 1986 – which criminalises the incitement of violence, the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 ­– which creates an offence of inciting hatred against a person on the grounds of their religion, and the Terrorism Act 2006 – which prohibits statements that “glorify” terrorism. The Government is yet to identify a legitimate target which could not already be captured by existing law.

Reports have indicated that EDOs would be used against those who “spread hate but do not break laws”. This is absurd by definition. If breaking the law is not a trigger for the state to act, at what moment does the state intervene?

Instead of new powers for the state, we would like to see more effective use of existing powers, and a robust defence of human right and freedom of speech to promote what the Government term ‘British values’ in the face of religious extremism.

We believe that objectionable ideas should be subjected to challenge, debate, scrutiny and ridicule. Society has a range of tools with which to tackle extremism; reaching immediately for new legal powers is short-sighted and risks undermining the values the Government seeks to promote.

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