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.

NSS: Government’s anti-extremism plans will have ‘chilling effect’ on free speech

The National Secular Society has expressed concern at the Government’s new proposals to challenge extremism and radicalisation.

Home Secretary Theresa May has announced renewed plans to introduce “extremism disruption orders” that would target those spreading extremist ideology.

David Cameron said: “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.”

The Guardian reported in 2014 that the EDOs, then blocked by the Liberal Democrats under the Coalition Government, would include “a ban on broadcasting and a requirement to submit to the police in advance any proposed publication on the web, social media or in print.”

NSS executive director Keith Porteous Wood commented: “The Government should have every tool possible to tackle extremism and terrorism, but there is a huge arsenal of laws already in place and a much better case needs to be made for introducing draconian measures such as Extremism Disruption Orders, which are almost unchallengeable and deprive individuals of their liberties.”

The NSS is concerned that the plans are currently very vague, and would have a chilling effect on free speech. The Society is calling for a stronger civil society response to counter extremism, and is critical of an approach that relies too much on new legislation.

The Christian Institute also criticised the proposed “Extremism Disruption Orders”. Simon Calvert, spokesperson for the Christian Institute, said: “While everyone applauds the principle of tackling Islamic extremism, comments by David Cameron and other senior members of the Government suggest EDO’s will exceed even Labour’s notorious religious hatred Bill or Section 5 of the Public Order Act.”

The NSS and the Christian Institute worked together, along with other civil liberties organisations to defeat the then-Labour Government’s proposals to criminalise “deliberately insulting a religion.”

Mr Calvert continued: “Last year the Government was forced to back down on proposals to outlaw ‘being annoying in a public place’. Now it looks like they are returning to their theme with a vengeance.

“The Christian Institute warns the Government not to rush through these measures, but to engage with groups with a track record of defending free speech.

“In the current climate, there is a real risk that EDOs will be used to clamp down on legitimate expressions of dissent.

“If the Government does not ensure that there are adequate safeguards, then, because of the low burden of proof, it is perfectly plausible that comedians, satirists, campaign groups, religious groups, secularist groups, and even journalists could find themselves subject to these draconian measures.”

A Telegraph editorial called on the Government to safeguard free speech, and argued that “In trying to protect democracy, the Government should be careful not to water down further our most precious value: freedom of expression.”

The Quilliam Foundation, a counter-extremism think tank, was also critical of the Government’s plans.

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