From today, Tuesday 23 March, a much-needed new criminal offence outlaws threatening behaviour or materials intended to stir up hatred against people on grounds of their sexual orientation. Stonewall successfully lobbied for the new protections and warmly welcomes their introduction.
‘We’re delighted that incitement to hatred on grounds of sexual orientation can now finally be tackled effectively by the criminal law, in a similar way to hatred based on race or religion,’ said Stonewall Chief Executive Ben Summerskill. ‘Throughout our campaign for this legal change, Stonewall uncovered a range of extreme websites and material stirring up anti-gay hatred. This new legislation will send a strong positive signal, encouraging more lesbian, gay and bisexual people to report hate incidents. Gay people are entitled to live without fear just like everyone else.’
Stonewall sought a specific incitement offence having uncovered extreme homophobic materials that the law was previously powerless to address. The measures are included in the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008, building on existing legislation against racial and religious hatred.
‘The newly-extended criminal offence of incitement to hatred will go some way towards addressing the hatred and violence directed towards lesbians, gay men and bisexuals in Britain at a time when homophobic attacks are on the increase,’ said Ben Summerskill. ‘It sends a strong signal that such behaviour is unacceptable in a civilised society. Just like race, a person's sexual orientation is an intrinsic characteristic for which no citizen should ever feel under threat of verbal or physical violence.’
Despite some alarmist claims about what the new laws will cover, they will categorically not impede genuine freedom of speech or the telling of jokes by comedians, as some have suggested. Instead, the important new offence will help prevent and tackle acts of serious hatred against individuals defined by reference to their sexual orientation, with a high threshold for prosecutions which must be approved by the Attorney General and heard before a jury.