UK: anti-free speech measure advances

Yet more evidence of the Western democracies’ sterling commitment to freedom of expression. From the Washington Post:

LONDON, Feb. 15 — The House of Commons on Wednesday backed a bill that would make “glorification” of terrorism a criminal offense, a measure that Prime Minister Tony Blair called crucial to Britain’s battle against religious extremists.

“Parliament has now sent out a very strong signal,” Blair said in a statement after the 315-to-277 vote. “I think that signal of strength is vital in circumstances where the threat that we face is not just from the individual acts of terrorism but the people who celebrate it, who try and entice other people or recruit other people into doing it.”

The measure, called the terrorism bill, still must be approved by the House of Lords, which voted last month to strip the “glorification” clause out of it. It was unclear whether the Lords would continue to object to the proposal on grounds that it infringes on civil liberties or back down in the face of Wednesday’s clear margin of victory.

Wednesday’s vote came as two major free-speech issues were driving public debate here: the conviction of radical Islamic cleric Abu Hamza Masri on charges of inciting racial hatred, and protests over a Danish newspaper’s publication of cartoons of the prophet Muhammad.

Opponents of the terrorism bill called it unnecessary and noted that Masri was convicted under existing laws against inciting violence or racial hatred.

But Blair said police could have acted against Masri sooner if they could have charged him with glorification of terrorism. Blair also noted that the law could have allowed criminal charges to be filed against people at the anti-cartoon protests who carried placards celebrating the attackers in last summer’s London bombings.

See our last post on free speech issues in the UK.