Last week, Umran Javed, a young British Muslim, was found guilty of soliciting murder and stirring up racial hatred as a result of statements he made during protests in London last February. The trials of some of his fellow protest participants will soon follow.

Javed, age 27, was prosecuted under the UK’s Public Order Act of 1986, which was originally designed to protect people from verbal abuse and intimidation based on race. Under the original law, arrestable offenses included:

  • deliberately provoking hatred of a racial group
  • distributing racist material to the public
  • making inflammatory public speeches
  • creating racist websites on the Internet
  • inciting inflammatory rumors about an individual or an ethnic group, for the purpose of spreading racial discontent

In 2005, this law was extended to apply to incitement to religious hatred as well. The maximum penalty for any of these offenses was then extended to life in prison.

While freedom of speech purists argued against these laws as an infringement on a fundamental pillar of democratic freedom, the law only received limited media attention until last February when Abu Hamza, a radical Muslim cleric, was sentenced to six years in prison. Following a Danish newspaper’s decision to publish a series of cartoons satirizing the prophet Muhammad last year, angry protests erupted around the world and the racial/religious hatred law’s application entered the public consciousness again. Tensions ran high and people on both sides of the debate bypassed rationality, instead favoring spontaneous, emotional soundbites. The most controversial of these statements were "Bomb, bomb Denmark. Bomb, bomb USA," which Javed shouted through a megaphone to a crowd of protestors.

Like many political issues I come across these days, this one has left me with an ambiguous taste in my mouth. On one hand, I’m a firm believer in the fundamental role of free speech in democracy. However, completely unrestricted speech is a utopian ideal and one that, when put into practice, leaves some people vulnerable to abuse. Okay, so we need some limits. Makes sense. But how do we go about deciding where those limits should be? Hmmm…that one’s a bit trickier. As with any ideology/policy/societal norm/law/dogma, concepts are never at a shortage. The difficulties emerge when it comes time for enforcement.

I have no idea what the answer to the "how free should free speech really be?" debate is. However, I think it’s an important issue to think about and discuss espcecially considering how many controversial political and social issues currently facing manking today. I’d love to hear from anyone who has thoughts on this.