January 22, 2008

One-legged lesbians and police stupidity

Here is one for the annals of free speech, a topic on which Language Log has often commented. In 2002, Robin Page, a British TV presenter, made a speech in Frampton-upon-Severn, Gloucestershire, to a group supporting fox-hunting with hounds (which the government was planning to outlaw). As part of his jokey introduction he suggested a human rights issue was involved for fox-hunters, and protested:

If you are a black, vegetarian, Muslim, asylum-seeking, one-legged, lesbian lorry driver, I want the same rights as you.

To his surprise, police later drove from Gloucestershire to where he lives in Cambridgeshire (a drive of many hours) and arrested him for this remark.

Someone had made a complaint about him under hate speech legislation. (The story as told by the Daily Mail is here.) He was locked in a cell and questioned for a long time.

After a struggle lasting over five years, just a few days ago Mr Page was finally offered about $4,000 compensation, and took it, so there is something of a happy ending to this tale of incompetence and overreach. But it tells us a lot about the disastrous failure to get hate speech legislation right and teach police how to work with it.

I assume it is as clear to you as it is to me that asking to have the same civil rights as any ordinary black, vegetarian, Muslim, asylum-seeking, one-legged, lesbian trucker couldn't by any possible stretch of the imagination be taken as a declaration of hatred for that group of people (almost certainly the empty set, by the way: who on earth was the complainant?). I'm not suggesting for a moment that it is a good idea to try and legislate against expressing hatred; I don't think it is. But suppose for the sake of argument that expressing hatred of or hostility to some group like blacks or lesbians is illegal in Gloucestershire. The quoted remark simply cannot be parlayed into a hostile attack on any of the groups involved: the remark could not possibly be judged to express hatred of blacks or lesbians (let alone threats against them such as might legitimately forbidden under laws against threatening or provoking assault). Indeed, suggesting that some group such as gays deserves the same sort of civil rights protection as blacks has been a familiar move in (leftist and liberal) political discourse since the 1960s.

The reaction of the police to the letter should have been first to just fall about laughing, and then to pin the complaint to the bulletin board in the station and send a polite note of reply explaining that this is not what the hate-speech legislation was supposed to forbid, and that no action would or could be taken. The decision-makers in the Gloucestershire constabulary must be utter morons. [Note to the fuzz: Please do not set off for Language Log Plaza to arrest me. I am not expressing threats against you.]

At the very worst, the quoted sentence (admittedly silly, and slightly distasteful in its sophomoric reactionariness) would be taken by those in the audience to conversationally imply that groups such as blacks, Muslims, asylum-seekers, the physically handicapped, and homosexuals (and adding vegetarians and truck-drivers just signaled that Mr Page was not expecting to be taken very seriously) are now the recipients too much care and attention from liberals and from the government, rather than too little: that they have too many rights compared to the rest of us. But whether true or false, this is of course a view that anyone should be entitled to hold and express, and it has surely been expressed hundreds of times in the British press and broadcast media.

I don't agree with those in the right-wing protest press who say that leftist thought control threatens British society. (Or even society in Canada, where some law students recently brought a loony human rights case against Mark Steyn for arguing in a book and an article that the future belongs to Muslims rather than non-Muslim Europeans because of the higher birthrates in Islamic communities: read all about it.)

But I certainly would agree that when excess of zeal is combined with low intelligence levels among police and judicial authorities there is plenty of reason to worry. My agent is not currently scheduling me for any talks on controversial talks about race or religion in the county of Gloucester.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at January 22, 2008 10:48 AM