I clearly remember the government telling us at the time that the ‘hate crime’ legislation in the Communications Act would not be used to curtail jokes. In fact I found a quote from then Home Secretary David Blunkett writing in the Guardian in 2004:
It’s been suggested by some comics that my proposal to make inciting religious hatred an offence prohibits gags about religion. I think that’s a joke. By couching their campaign in terms of freedom of speech, they know they have created a flight of fantasy worthy of the most surreal stand-up. But here’s the punchline: nothing I’ve suggested is an attack on people’s rights to legitimately criticise religion or make jokes about it.
Instead, what we are doing is offering the same protection to followers of religion as we do to racial minorities. That is, making it illegal to stir up hatred against people because of their religious beliefs.
Whatever you think of a dog being taught to do a ‘Nazi salute’ when it hears trigger words like “Sieg Heil” or “Gas the Jews” you have to admit that Mr Blunkett’s assurances have turned out to be baseless. It’s in the nature of such poorly thought out laws to have a crumbling nature which bit-by-bit erode our freedom of expression. Something many of us raised our concerns about at the time.
That’s why such laws should not be passed at all. Whatever bar they try to set will inevitably be used by this or that pressure group to take away your rights to tell a joke about whatever they care about. The bar is then lowered and the next pressure group lines up to try its case.
I’ve purposefully left out the question of what is offensive in this article. That’s a complex question almost entirely down to the subjective. And, as such, is it really possible for a court to decide fairly what is or isn’t? But that’s a question for another day. What I’m talking about here is the freedom to joke about anything and everything you wish – even if it does cause some to be offended.
That is why there should instead be a right to offend. No-one should be out of limits, however undeserving and innocent. As long as you are not advocating a crime should be committed you should be able to say what you will – and be judged on it in the court of your peers and nowhere else.