Free Speech and Harassment: A Reply to Lallands Peat Worrier.

Free Speech and Racial/Sectarian Harassment: A Reply to Lallands Peat Worrier.

I believe passionately in the right of free speech, freedom of belief and freedom of religious practice. Contemporary laws in Scotland have criminalised sectarian hate speech in certain contexts. I believe that this is right and just. I don’t think this negates my belief in freedom of speech or belief.

I think there is a difference between believing that Irish Catholics are misled in their religious beliefs, and actively harassing Irish Catholics with verbal abuse, violence and discriminating against them in the workplace.

I think there is a difference between believing people of colour or Irish Catholics are inferior as a race and actively harassing those people with verbal abuse, violence and discriminating against them in the workplace. If an Irish Catholic, or a person of colour has the best experience and qualifications, it is only fair that they are offered the job, whether or not you believe they are from an ‘inferior race’. That belief should not detract from the fact that they are patently the best candidate. I know immigration is a difficult issue, and I’m not going into it here.

To deny an Irish Catholic a job on the grounds that you do not agree with their religion is a way of denying Irish Catholics their freedom of religion. So long as Catholicism does not interfere with carrying out their jobs, it should make no difference at all.

I have to say at this point that I don’t personally believe that ‘inferior races’ exist. To my mind, there is only one race, the human race, and notions of ‘race’ are social fictions. But I accept that other people think differently about this, and it is their right to do so.

Whether speech is criminally offensive or the expression of a personal belief depends on the context. An article in a gay magazine disagreeing with the Catholic doctrines about homosexuality is not to my mind sectarian. Shouting ‘Fenian bastards’ at kids wearing Catholic school blazers is often a prelude to spitting on them and assaulting them directly, or from a distance with stones if the sectarian kids are particularly cowardly. Children learn these words from their parents, so really the parents are responsible for this.

This sort of sectarian abuse is commonplace in Scotland. It has nothing to do with free speech and everything to do with harassment. Presumably the point of such harassment is to make the Irish Catholics go away, i.e. leave Scotland, by making life so difficult for them. This is very unlikely considering the Irish Catholic community has been here since 1847 because of the potato famine and most Irish Catholics are third or fourth generation Scottish born. They consider themselves Scottish. Many have adopted a secular way of life and no longer believe in Catholicism.

Most workplaces have policies against harassment in general, as well as particular forms of it, such as sexual, racial and religious. This doesn’t mean that free speech has vanished, it just means you are not allowed to use speech in such a way as to harass (insult, intimidate, threaten, degrade) people in any way. If an employer allows such behaviour in the workplace, an employee is within their rights to take them to an industrial tribunal and get compensation for the injury caused (including stress). There have been many successful legal actions on these grounds.

Employees are free to express their views in other contexts. They still have freedom of speech, belief and expression, so long as they are not engaging in harassment. That is why parties like the BNP or EDL are still legal.

Wittgenstein argued that the meaning of words derived from the ‘language game’ in which they are used. The meaning of speech is derived from the context, and from the broader social context. The words ‘fuck the pope’ are sectarian harassment at an Old Firm football match, because of the anti Irish Catholic racist harassment game. Akin to ‘fenian bastard’, often the prelude to spitting and physical assault, part of the now ritualised violence and retaliation that happens between Celtic and Rangers fans.

The words ‘fuck the pope’ at a gay rights march is part of a completely different language game, one of protest, that doesn’t intimidate Irish Catholics and doesn’t culminate in violence against them. That is why it is free speech, not sectarian hate speech.

A lot of people have learned sectarian hate speech and the harassment of Irish Catholics from the cradle. This type of harassment has been socially acceptable in Scotland for too long. It must be very difficult for some people to accept that behaviour they have accepted as normal for such a long time is now classed as criminal. There needs to be some sort of cultural shift as well as a legal one, although the legal shift is a good start.

Apartheid in South Africa was their shame, accepted as normal by white South Africans, but not by the rest of the world. Sectarianism in Scotland is something that is similarly reprehensible in the view of the majority. Just because something is normal, commonplace and hackneyed doesn’t make it right. In my opinion, harassment is always wrong.

This cultural shift hasn’t yet happened, so there is considerable resistance to anti-sectarian laws. I certainly don’t think it is tenable to resist these laws on the grounds they contravene the right to free speech or belief. It is still legal to have anti-Irish Catholic beliefs and express those beliefs, just not in a context of harassment or discrimination.

Stephen Birrell was convicted for creating a Facebook page called ‘Neil Lennon should be banned’. He then went on to post anti Irish Catholic hate speech in a context of a sustained mob harassment of Neil Lennon because he is an Irish Catholic. This mob harassment has culminated in the usual violence on more than one occasion.

I cannot imagine the hell that Neil Lennon and his family (who have also been threatened) must be going through. All because Neil Lennon is a prominent Irish Catholic. This harassment also affects the wider Irish Catholic community, demonstrating that should they become prominent, they might be the next target. In effect, this hate campaign has harassed the entire Irish Catholic community. In my opinion, it amounts to a form of terrorism, and it has been difficult for the authorities to tackle.

If Birrell wants to go to the pub and discuss his hatred of Irish Catholics with his friends I think he is within his rights, the right of free speech. If he wants to participate and support a campaign of harassment and violence against any individual, he is clearly on the wrong side of the law. Disliking Irish Catholics does not necessarily result in stoning and assaulting them and discriminating against them. Disliking anybody for any reason doesn’t necessarily result in these things. And that is the difference between having an opinion and harassing people.

I think that by calling his page ‘Neil Lennon should be banned’ obviously incriminates him as participating in the harassment of Neil Lennon. And the comments he posted incriminated him as harassing Neil Lennon because he is Irish Catholic. I hope that sentence deters others from mindlessly joining in with this sort of victimisation. Birrell is not the victim here, the victim is Neil Lennon.

I am for freedom of speech because I believe Birrell has a right to his opinions about Irish Catholics and Neil Lennon in particular (although I disagree with him). I am anti racist and anti sectarian because I do not believe he has a right to participate in a campaign of violent harassment of Neil Lennon (and by extension  the entire Irish Catholic community) by posting sectarian hate speech online. In my opinion, the meaning of speech is derived from the context, and the context was clearly one of harassment, not exercising his right to freedom of belief and expression.


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Morag Eyrie
    Oct 25, 2011 @ 15:19:40

    Thanks for writing this @MryMac. It find it weird that people are so adamant about the right to free speech trumping the right to live free of fear and intimidation. The people that trumpet that line always seem to be those fairly near the top of the privilege pile; people who probably haven’t spent much time trapped in the fear that poverty or oppression bring. I rarely see people involved in grass-roots social justice work (I include grass-roots feminism in that) throwing their toys out of the pram over “free speech”.

    One of the first conditions for having the right to free speech is the freedom from living in fear. If I’m afraid to say what I think because of the abuse and attacks that are reasonably likely to rain down on me, or because I might lose my hope of ever having a job, then I don’t have free speech. If I am too hungry or cold or ill to even think clearly let alone speak, I don’t have free speech.

    Regarding context; I think I would have a stern word with any gay rights march that tried to use the banner shown in LPW’s post* in Scotland. In Scotland and Northern Ireland, sectarianism is so pernicious and violent, contextually I think it trumps the right to use language like “fuck the pope” in a public march where anyone can see it coming down the road in big letters (“fuck the pope” being a widely used phrase of sectarian abuse). However, in places that are either Catholic majority (like the Republic of Ireland) or where Catholics are not particularly persecuted (like New Zealand) I don’t see a problem.

    I do see a problem where people try to take discussions like this out of context, to try and place them in some pure, abstract zone where icky real world stuff like racism don’t exist. They think that this is the way to the truth. As a feminist I think the exact opposite; in doing that they are pretending the power structures of this world that affect people’s lives don’t exist. They are pretending there is a level playing field where there isn’t. And they are certainly letting me know who I can and can’t turn to for help if I am under attack.



  2. megabreath2
    Nov 20, 2012 @ 12:21:05

    “The words ‘fuck the pope’ are sectarian harassment at an Old Firm football match, because of the anti Irish Catholic racist harassment game.”wrong in my view.This is to conflate one game with another.Or one societal use with another.It suggests shouting this at a football game is the same as shouting it,say,outside a Catholic Church.Or indeed shouting it when there is no one around to be offended but,if they were,they would be offended as the Offensive Behaviour Law would have it.Football matches are oppositional occasions and as such fans shout a great deal of material for the sole purpose of upsetting their rivals.If all Rangers fans were vegetarian undoubtedly the Celtic support would sing songs about burgers and the weirdness of veggie freaks etc etc The conflation of behaviour at football games with wider societal behaviour rests,in my view,on very shaky evidence attempting to link this with general sectarianism in Scotland-statistically overt sectarianism in Scotland is very rare unlike racism for instance-and is just more evidence of long term disparagement of football fans by those whose find that culture difficult to digest.Dr Stuart Waiton in “Snobs’ Law: Criminalising Football Fans in an Age of Intolerance ” lays this out very well in my view.The Offensive Behaviour act offends against principles of liberty for no other purpose than political grandstanding and an opportunity to exercise righteous intolerance.One other point-
    “This sort of sectarian abuse is commonplace in Scotland.”I am very sceptical of this a view.I have found nothing to refute the work of Dr Steve Bruce in this regard and his article from April 2011 in the Guardian is still worth a read
    Certainly,it is commonly believed that sectarianism is widespread and so on but,in light of the sparse evidence,it begs the questions why this belief is so widespread and what purpose does this serve for those who believe it?


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