Comedian Rowan Atkinson has criticised hate speech legislation, saying that the House of Lords must vote against a government attempt to remove a free speech clause in a homophobic hatred offence.
The Blackadder actor, addressing a meeting of Lords on Tuesday, warned of creating a culture of “censoriousness” by removing free speech.
He said: “Do I think that I would risk prosecution because of jokes or drama about sexual orientation with which I might be involved if we don’t have the free speech clause?
“Not really – but I dread something almost as bad – a culture of censoriousness, a questioning, negative and leaden attitude that is encouraged by legislation of this nature but is considerably and meaningfully alleviated by the free speech clause.”
“I do not believe that legislation of such a censorious nature as that of hate speech, carrying as it does the risk of a seven-year jail sentence for saying the wrong thing in the wrong way, can ever by justified merely by the desire to ‘send the right message’.”
He cited Christian groups as being “particularly concerned” the law will be used against them, adding that “heavy-handed police intervention” had been used before in instances of groups condemning gays and lesbians.
The Coroners and Justice Bill is being used to remove the clause added by Parliament in May last year. Although an amendment to keep the clause may be voted on in the Commons next week, the matter is likely to progress to the House of Lords.
Atkinson has criticised anti-hate laws in the past.
In 2004, he launched a campaign against a government bill to outlaw inciting religious hatred.
He said: “To criticise a person for their race is manifestly irrational and ridiculous but to criticise their religion, that is a right. That is a freedom.
“The freedom to criticise ideas, any ideas – even if they are sincerely held beliefs – is one of the fundamental freedoms of society.”