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The dangers of criminalising the anti-Israel bigots

Expanding the offence of 'glorifying terrorism' would threaten all of our free speech.

Andrew Tettenborn

Topics Free Speech Politics UK

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Many have been shocked by the unwillingness of London’s Metropolitan Police to intervene in the ongoing pro-Palestine demos, despite the hate that is so often spewed on them.

According to Met commissioner Mark Rowley, this is because protesters calling for ‘jihad’ or chanting ‘From the river to the sea’ (a coded call for the destruction of Israel) have not committed any crime. Neither chant amounts to the criminal offence of ‘glorifying terrorism’ – that is, to the direct encouragement of terrorist acts or support for a proscribed organisation, such as Hamas. If the UK government wants to tackle such speech, Rowley argues, our terror laws ‘may need redrawing’.

The government seems to have taken Rowley’s advice onboard. Ministers are said to be planning to revise the law on ‘glorifying terrorism’ in order to ensure it includes chants like ‘From the river to the sea’.

But Jonathan Hall KC, the lawyer appointed by the government as the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, has now put a spanner in the works. He has warned new home secretary James Cleverly that extending the UK’s terror laws would likely have severe unintended consequences, limiting free speech and further clogging up our overcrowded prisons.

Hall is right. The government’s proposals pose a serious threat to free speech. Any law modifying the offence of ‘glorifying terrorism’ to include chants like ‘From the river to the sea’ would need to be incredibly wide.

We might find it objectionable that protesters celebrate Hamas, implicitly or explicitly. But attempting to criminalise these marchers could affect all sorts of other speech deemed to be ‘glorifying terrorism’. Strictly speaking, supporting Nelson Mandela’s ANC in its struggle against Apartheid could end up being deemed to ‘glorify terrorism’ if the government pushes ahead. Do we want to risk making writers and historians who praise him liable, even just in theory, to 15 years in prison, the current maximum penalty for encouraging terrorism?

Such a law would also give a very dangerous amount of discretionary power to future governments, allowing them to restrict protests that they claim might be ‘glorifying terrorism’. And just wait until you see the enforcement powers it would give the police.

The Met are already failing to enforce the existing law in an even-handed way. They have repeatedly ignored crimes committed by pro-Palestine demonstrators, while making life very difficult for Jewish organisations. For instance, last month police issued peremptory orders to the Campaign against Antisemitism to turn off its electronic billboards showing children who’d been kidnapped by Hamas. Apparently, this was on the grounds that the campaign might have offended Islamist thugs nearby. Give the Met even more discretionary power to arrest people for what they say at a protest and the problem multiplies.

The police don’t need extended powers to deal with the pro-Palestine demos. They just need to learn to use the powers they already have and ensure that they use them fairly and non-selectively. If the Met make it clear that they will come down hard on anyone making threats of violence, they can safely leave arguments about the meaning of ‘jihad’, or ‘From the river to the sea’, to another day.

Criminalising these hateful chants may have short-term appeal to a government desperate to look like it’s in control. But it would represent a terrible blow to free speech in the long run. It must be resisted.

Andrew Tettenborn is a professor of commercial law and a former Cambridge admissions officer.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Free Speech Politics UK

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