The Society of Editors (SoE) has cautioned the Law Commission on a possible chilling effect proposed changes to legislation on hate crimes may have if enacted in England and Wales.
Responding to a consultation by the Commission on proposed changes to the hate crimes laws, the Society said that although it supports efforts to protect people from prejudice, the right to offend should be protected in a free society.
The consultation comes at the same time hate crime laws are set to be strengthened in Scotland where the Justice Secretary has confirmed measures will be in place to protect freedom of expression.
“As in Scotland, we must guard against a drift towards censorship and the stifling of genuine debate on sensitive issues,” said Society of Editors executive director Ian Murray.
“Although there are no overt threats to press and media freedoms in the changes proposed by the Law Commission in its review of the hate crime laws, we must be wary of a drift towards silencing voices even if they express opinions some may find offensive.”
The consultation comes to an end on December 24. In its submission the SoE says: “While the Society appreciates that the right to freedom of expression is not absolute, we remain concerned that the Law Commission’s proposals could represent a threat to freedom of speech and public debate and could have a chilling effect on both the media and the public’s ability, and willingness, to discuss controversial topics.
“Alongside, the necessity of including protections of freedom of speech to cover all of the protected characteristics now and in the future, the press and the public must not be deterred from voicing controversial opinions out of fear that such a discussion may attract the attention of law enforcement.
“The right and freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority is an established principle of human rights legislation.
“Hate speech legislation must not stray into attempts to legislate against what some may deem to be offensive.
“While the Society supports efforts to protect people from prejudice, the right to freedom of expression must also be protected and any amendments to hate crime legislation must be both proportionate and justified.”