Erosion of Freedom of Speech

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(27/11/2001, p.1)

Blunkett ignores MPs over terror Bill
By Andy McSmith, Chief Political Correspondent

INCITEMENT to racial hatred is on the way to becoming a new offence in criminal law after David Blunkett pushed controversial clauses of his new anti-terrorism legislation through the Commons yesterday.
The Home Secretary defied warnings from Members of Parliament from all sides that he risked eroding freedom of speech by bringing in legislation which some people believe could open up the risk of fire and brimstone preachers or even comics who make anti-religious jokes being sent to jail.
The Commons passed the disputed clauses of the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Bill by 328-209, with about a dozen Labour MPs joining Tories and Liberal Democrats to vote against the Government.
There is a strong chance that the measure will be overturned by the House of Lords, although Labour whips pointed out that the rebellion was considerably smaller than the one last week, when 32 Labour MPs voted against the Bill.
The emergency measures are being pushed through Parliament in near-record time. MPs were kept up until the early hours so that the Bill could complete its passage through the Commons in only three days.
It will take at least twice as long to steer it through the House of Lords, but Mr Blunkett hopes to have it on the statute books by Christmas.
Because of the speed with which the legislation is passed, MPs were denied the opportunity to vote on a proposal by the former Cabinet minister, Frank Dobson, that the ancient law of blasphemy - which protects only the Church of England - should be abolished as the new offence comes into force.
Oliver Letwin, the shadow home secretary, praised the "noble" intentions behind Mr Blunkett's proposal to outlaw incitement to religious hatred but said it could be used against the "vulnerable" religious groups it is supposed to protect. A Presbyterian preacher who denounced the Pope as the "Antichrist" could end up in jail for inciting hatred of Roman Catholics.
More seriously, Mr Letwin suggested, the new law could be used to launch a malicious prosecution against a Muslim who made intemperate comments about Christianity.
Mr Blunkett, who denied weekend press reports that he was going to make a U-turn and scrap the disputed clauses, told MPs: "I have heard and read enough nonsense talked about this Bill and what the implications would be to last a lifetime."
The "nonsense" about the sections covering religious hatred began, he said, with a warning from the comedian Rowan Atkinson, known for his performances as Blackadder and Mr Bean, that the new law might be used to jail people for "taking the mickey" out of religion.
Mr Blunkett denied that religious jokes or religious proselytising would fall foul of the new legislation.