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Censorship is not the answer to Britain’s anti-Semitism crisis

The racist ramblings of a cranky Lib Dem councillor should not be a matter for the police.

Andrew Tettenborn

Topics Free Speech UK

Are the British authorities finally starting to take anti-Semitism seriously? For weeks, the state’s double standards on so-called hate speech have been impossible to ignore. The same police forces that have only been too eager to clamp down on, say, the misgendering of trans people have displayed an almost wilful blindness to the explosion of Jew hatred since 7 October.

Now someone accused of rank anti-Semitism has finally had their collar felt. Last week, Pat Marsh, a Lib Dem councillor and former borough mayor in Harrogate, was arrested by North Yorkshire Police on suspicion of ‘stirring up racial hatred’.

In the weeks leading up to her arrest, the elderly Marsh made a series of grossly anti-Semitic posts on X about the Israel-Hamas war. ‘This is what you Jews are doing’, she wrote, ‘I hope you feel proud, you are a disgrace to this world’. She also called the Jewish people ‘evil’ and ‘vile’ and compared Israel’s actions in Gaza to the Holocaust. Marsh has since been released, but remains under police investigation. She has been suspended by the Lib Dems.

Yet, however appalling Marsh’s remarks were, and however galling the police’s hypocrisy has been over anti-Semitism, this arrest is nothing to celebrate. Criminalising speech is always wrong. We should object to any law that gives the state the power to decide what can and can’t be said.

The truth is that no matter how offensive we may find certain words or ideas, suppressing so-called hate speech does nothing to actually tackle the roots of hatred and prejudice in society. If anything, it actually makes them worse. It pushes objectionable views underground, where they can fester unchallenged.

Besides, it’s not clear that Marsh’s arrest actually does show the state is getting serious about anti-Semitism. After all, her posts are hardly the most egregious example from the past few months. It is more than a little curious that ‘pro-Palestine’ mobs gathering outside synagogues to physically intimidate Jews have not faced any legal consequences, but a pensioner ranting on social media has had the book thrown at her.

It is difficult to avoid the suspicion that the main reason the police arrested Marsh was that she was an easy target. It was probably a low-risk way for the police to look like they are treating anti-Semitism with the same gravity as they would other forms of hate speech.

Decisions about who to pursue for controversial statements seem to be made, consciously or otherwise, with one eye on how they will play out in the media. Arresting large numbers of Islamist activists for anti-Semitic statements would likely invite accusations of police racism or Islamophobia. But arresting an elderly white woman for expressing racism against Jews? That’s a far easier PR win for the police.

This two-tier policing needs to stop. The police are already suffering from a crisis of public trust. If forces want to restore confidence, they must enforce the law with due impartiality. Better still, they could focus on tackling actual crime, rather than arresting elderly ladies for their ugly social-media rants.

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

Picture by: North Yorkshire Liberal Democrats.

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Topics Free Speech UK

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