It is not the job of the police to shut down political debate. They should stick to solving the crime | Sonia sodha


A the man receives a call from a policeman. He is told that although he did nothing criminal his social media posts offended someone, so the police recorded them as a non-criminal hate incident that can show up on criminal record checks. . The officer warns that if he continues to “escalate” the cases, the police could take criminal action against him, a message subsequently reinforced by his superiors.

It may seem like it came out of a police state. But it happened in Britain in 2019, in a case that led the High Court judge who subsequently ruled the actions of the Humberside police force to be unlawful to warn them, “in this country we never had a Tcheka, Gestapo or Stasi “. While there is no evidence that Harry Miller, the man in question, could ever get lost in an illegal speech, the police took steps that reasonably led him to believe that he was. warned not to exercise his right to freedom of expression on pain of potential criminal prosecution. pursuit; they also told reporters Miller’s tweets were “transphobic.”

And just before Christmas, in a landmark judgment that drew surprisingly little comment from human rights lawyers given its far-reaching implications, the appeals court went further in ruling than the College’s guidelines of Policing that police should record all non-criminal hate incidents, as perceived by those who take offense, is an illegal incursion on citizens’ freedom of expression.

How did we come to a situation where an individual had to risk financial ruin to legally defend their right to free speech in the face of illegal police actions? The well-meaning roots of police recording non-criminal hate incidents stem from the 1999 Macpherson Report into the Stephen Lawrence murder in 1993, which exposed institutional racism in the Metropolitan Police. Macpherson recommended that police adopt the definition of a racist incident as any “perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person” and that non-criminal incidents be reported, recorded and investigated with an equal commitment to the crime. The aim was to help the police overcome their institutional racism and build trust among ethnic minority communities.

This has now evolved into a system for recording non-criminal hate incidents that cover five of the nine characteristics protected by equality law, including transgender identity (but not, oddly enough, gender). In a world where police do not have the resources to investigate non-criminal incidents, in part due to the volume of reports generated by social media, the College of Policing is asking police officers to record as hate incidents as hate incidents. perceived by the person reporting them. as motivated by hostility, including hostility or aversion.

It has become open to manipulation, with grim consequences for free speech. Anyone can complain to the police if they don’t like what someone is saying. It will be recorded as a hate incident, in a way that could significantly damage careers and reputations, but without any due process of a criminal charge. And it is impossible to underestimate the frightening impact of receiving a call from a police officer warning you to exercise your democratic rights.

Miller is chairman of the Reclaim party, led by Laurence Fox; hardly a political ally of this newspaper. The judge noted that his tweets were “for the most part either opaque, profane or unsophisticated.” But that does not justify hampering her right to contribute to a live and controversial political debate on the relative importance of biological sex and self-declared gender identity in determining how society constitutes things such as spaces. unisex and sports. This is a far from settled question with legitimate competing perspectives. Yet people (often women) with a ‘gender critical’ view – that biological sex cannot be fully replaced by gender identity in law and society – have been vulnerable to forays into their freedom. expression, because opponents have sought to distort their position as so hateful. that it goes beyond the limits of legitimate discussion. (The absurdity of this misinterpretation is demonstrated in the court’s confirmation last year that the scientific understanding that biological sex is immutable is a belief protected by equality law.)

There are several other instances where the police have acted inappropriately against people legally expressing this position. Some forces even have a habit of bending the law to the public: last February, Merseyside Police falsely claimed that ‘it is an offense to be offensive’, while West Yorkshire Police threatened in 2018 to sue anyone who posts “insulting” messages on their Facebook page. .

The police must be politically impartial – they must not control people differently because of their political views. Yet there are many examples of police forces actively taking political sides in the sex and gender debate. Paul Giannasi, the National Police Hate Crimes Advisor, praised Lancashire Police for expressing disappointment at legitimate expressions of critical gender belief, commending them for their ‘initiative and empathy’ in doing so. . Several police forces are paying LGBT charity Stonewall for advice and training, despite Stonewall’s promotion of a contested political position on gender identity.

The police officer who illegally cautioned Miller told him, Miller said, that a fetus could have a female brain but develop male body parts, later confirming that he learned this unscientific belief during a training course. Greater Manchester Police social media accounts have used and defended the derogatory and misogynistic term “terf”, associated with threats of rape and death against women expressing sexist beliefs.

Several cases of gruesome murders over the past year have served as a reminder that many police forces remain tarnished by institutional misogyny, racism and homophobia. But there is no shortcut to the essential culture change for non-discriminatory policing that all citizens have a right to expect. Telling the police to record all non-criminal hate incidents or to believe all victims despite their investigative role are inappropriate and blunt approaches that undermine fair and impartial policing.

The implications of the appeal court ruling for freedom of expression go far beyond policing: he notes “how quickly some involved in the transgender debate are ready to accuse others with who they do not agree to show hatred, or to be transphobic when they are not ”. We see it everywhere: from Harry potter actors condemning Jk rowling for her “hateful” views, to broadcasters saying interviewees should be “canceled” for saying biological sex is immutable, to academics like Kathleen Stock abused for their mistaken thoughts.

There is no democracy without freedom of expression. That the police have acted illegally to put an end to legitimate political debate in 21st century Britain should remind us that, even in mature democracies, even the most basic of human rights should never be taken for granted.

Sonia Sodha is a columnist at l’Observateur


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