Hate incidents

If someone says, or tweets, something hateful towards trans people, should the police get involved?

In the US, constitutional protection of speech, held to include burning crosses, is fundamental, but in Britain we recognise the concept of hate speech. Hate speech oppresses particular groups, suppressing their speech, so vitiates the main benefit of free speech: hearing different perspectives so as to find the truth. But not everything that is hateful should be criminal. A hate crime involves harassment, intimidation, violence, or property damage motivated by hatred of the victim as a member of a particular group rather than as an individual. Shouting abuse in the street is a crime under the Public Order Act 1986. A hate incident is not criminal but may still offend and distress a member of a minority.

Here are the current Hate Crime Operational Guidelines, last reviewed in 2014, currently subject to a consultation. Dr Nathan Hall’s foreword (p1) makes the case for police involvement even when there is no crime: Regardless of how trivial an incident may appear initially, the actions or inactions of the police in response to that incident can have a significant impact on the way that the organisation is viewed by the community it serves.

Where there is no crime (p60) The police have limited powers in these circumstances, but should recognise that hate incidents can cause extreme distress to victims and communities and can be the precursor to more serious crimes.

Such incidents are discussed at pp60-63. Where another agency is responsible the police might not even formally record a “non-crime hate incident”- for example transphobic shouting in a school. Where no other agency is responsible, the police should record the incident. Any risks to the victim should be identified. Police forces should keep local statistics. The public may object, calling the police the “thought police” (a term from 1984), so the police should not overreact or breach the hater’s human rights.

Hate Crime on the Internet: see pp115-122. Making threats is a crime, and if the anonymous individual is in England, threatening someone in England, and can be identified then English courts have jurisdiction even if the servers are elsewhere.

There is a site, True Vision, on which to report hate crime including on the internet. Personal threats should be investigated.

Not all hate is criminal. On line, haters radicalise each other, and their hatred may spill over into real world harassment and intimidation, but criminalising the hatred is politically impossible. And while I would like the self-righteous hatred exhibited by such as WPUK rebuked, I find others called “extremists”, such as Extinction Rebellion, admirable, so don’t want criminal law to encroach too far. Yet I read that the vile Harry Miller tweeted personal abuse as well as the inanities quoted by the judge, so possibly he got away with his court action because of the evidence rather than the facts.

7 thoughts on “Hate incidents

  1. Canada has a fairly similar attitude towards hate speech, in a pragmatic sense. So, for example, somebody tweeting random bigotry in general isn’t going to attract police attention, and it shouldn’t, that is something for general society to address.

    However, systemic hate speech, falls into a different category. There have been examples, in Canada, where the primary focus and purpose of an individual or group is about inciting hate against an identifiable segment of public and they have been charged as a result. Ernst Zundel is a prime example of this. I sense some of the anti-Trans groups in the UK would be skirting perilously close to our laws on this front as well.

    I am reminded of Karl Popper, and the paradox of tolerance, in which he noted that, “In order to maintain a tolerant society, the society must be intolerant of intolerance.” In this aspect, you can see what failure to do that is now doing to the United States.


    • Welcome, Joanne. Thank you for commenting. I looked at the Saskatchewan case of Whatcott, and that informed my understanding of hate speech. There there is specific protection of freedom of expression in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and here there is article 10, Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers. I had not heard of Ernst Zundel, a Holocaust denier imprisoned in Canada and Germany.


        • Thank you. That is helpful.

          This is more and more a British blog. Last year for the first time I had more views from the UK than the USA, and the trend continues. When I started and the overwhelming LGBT issue was equal marriage, I blogged often on US subjects. I have occasionally blogged on Canada, but am not enough of a lawyer to assess the differences between State laws even if I had the time to find them all. I have been rebuked for referring to “Quakers” when the context shows the meaning is “Quakers in Britain”, but I am not going to say “British” every time I refer to a British thing. I suppose this echoes privilege- I do not say “white” when I mean only white people. I would welcome a guest blog on Canadian hate laws.


  2. I think that in Aotearoa New Zealand, our approach is also more pragmatic that idealistic, and I think similar to the UK and Canada. However here, with the exception of direct threats, it’s not a matter for police but for the Human Rights Commission, the Race Conciliator’s Office or the Censor (the manifesto and video of the Christchurch terrorist were declared objectionable material by the censor, thereby possession or distribution became a criminal offence). It’s these organisations that receive complaints and investigate. In the case of the first two offices mentioned, a primary role is to educate and mediate, and prosecutions are rare. Prosecutions for hate speech can be either “civil” or “criminal” depending on the nature of the offence. In other words, convictions don’t necessarily result in a criminal record.

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