Free speech is not a licence for racists to spread racist propaganda. Mark Norwood was a regional organiser for the extreme right-wing British National Party. In 2003, he tried to persuade the European Court of Human Rights that it should support his right to freedom of speech by letting him put up a poster in his living room window, with an image of the Twin Towers in flames and the words “Islam out of Britain – Protect the British People.”
The Court was not impressed. The case didn’t even pass the first hurdle – it was declared “inadmissible”. The Court said the purpose of the European Convention on Human Rights is to ensure that no-one can rely on human rights to destroy the rights or freedoms of others. The poster was meant to be a public attack on all Muslims in the UK and, therefore, Mark Norwood could not rely on his right to freedom of speech. His claim failed.
The issue the case highlighted is still angrily debated, inside and outside the courts. There have been recent prosecutions in the UK for inciting racial hatred on the internet, including a man jailed for posting anti-Muslim comments on Facebook. But where does freedom of speech end and race hate begin?
The line is not always clear, and policing that line is becoming increasingly difficult, when much of the language is being posted on internet sites such as Facebook and Twitter. The recent attack on Charlie Hebdo was denounced by many as an attack on freedom of speech, a cruel and violent outcome to a grievance about this very issue. In a world where race and religious differences are the cause of so much violence, the need for strong, clear legal protection of both freedom of speech and the prohibition of race hate is growing.