Amid the economic storms and social restrictions consequent upon the COVID-19 pandemic, you’d have been forgiven for failing to read the 544 page report from the Law Commission published a few weeks ago. Tasked with producing a consultation on how to make laws around hate crime more effective, there’s much in the report to welcome.
But more than a few eyebrows, I suspect, would have arched skyward at the suggestion that people should now be prosecuted for offensive or prejudiced comments made in their own home. Free speech is an uncomfortable concept – but we were reminded of its critical importance a few weeks ago by the tragic murder of Samuel Paty, a teacher in Paris who was decapitated by an Islamic terrorist for teaching his students about the importance of free expression.
Even leaving aside the ethical implications of policing the thoughts and remarks of our friends and neighbours, the practicalities of enforcing such a rule make the mind boggle. As one barrister remarked, any attempt at large-scale enforcement would involve a daisy-chain of informers and whisperers reminiscent of the Stasi.
Over the course of the pandemic, we’ve had to accept, reluctantly, greater state intrusion into parts of our lives that were previously private. From monitoring our movements via track and trace and the imposition of travel restrictions to limits on social access to our family, friends and loved ones.
But a permanent shift, allowing the state to sanction people for remarks made in the privacy of their own home would represent a fundamental alteration in the balance between privacy and enforcement of the law.
Hate speech is abhorrent – but such a fetter on freedom of expression would be even more so. It’s about balance – it’s not for nothing that the statue outside the Old Bailey is Justice holding a pair of scales. And if this proposal does come before Parliament, I’ll be doing all I can to ensure that the scales are as evenly weighted as possible and that balance is maintained.