This is not something you often hear about in the UK and so it has come as a little bit of a surprise to me. If you can’t mock religion, then you are ring-fencing a worldview and inoculating it from analysis and criticism. There are certainly some freedom of speech issues here. It very much reminds me of comedian Rowan Atkinson’s defence of mocking religion from a few years back when this was a very sensitive issue (back in 2004):
Rowan Atkinson defended the right of comedians to poke fun at other people’s religion last night as he joined the campaign against Government plans to create a new offence of incitement to religious hatred.
The star of the BBC’s Blackadder television series lined up with leading barristers, writers and politicians to oppose the proposed law.
Ministers say the Bill will protect faith groups – particularly Muslims.
Under the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill, which will have its second reading in the Commons today, anyone judged to have stirred up religious hatred through threatening, abusive or insulting behaviour, would be liable to a maximum of seven years in prison.
But opponents of the measure say that while it is well intentioned, stopping the right to criticise other religions would end centuries of tolerance and could stoke tensions between religious groups rather than ease them.
Speaking at a press conference in the House of Commons, Atkinson said the proposals would destroy one of society’s fundamental freedoms – the right to cause offence.
It would also threaten the livelihoods of all those whose job it is “to question, to analyse and to satirise”. These included authors, academics, writers, actors, politicians and comedians.
There was a “fundamental difference” between cracking a joke about someone’s religion and being offensive about their race which was, rightly, already an offence, 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,” he said.
“The freedom to criticise ideas – any ideas even if they are sincerely held beliefs – is one of the fundamental freedoms of society.
“And the law which attempts to say you can criticise or ridicule ideas as long as they are not religious ideas is a very peculiar law indeed.
“It all points to the promotion of the idea that there should be a right not to be offended. But in my view the right to offend is far more important than any right not to be offended.
“The right to ridicule is far more important to society than any right not to be ridiculed because one in my view represents openness – and the other represents oppression.”
Anyway, back to the point in hand concerning the sacking of a disabled grandfather who shared a Billy Connolly sketch. This is from the National Secular Society:
The supermarket chain Asda has sacked a man for sharing a sketch of the comedian Billy Connolly mocking religions including Christianity and Islam on social media.
Brian Leach was dismissed after a colleague complained that the sketch, in which Connolly said “religion is over” and called suicide bombers “wankers”, was anti-Islamic.
The National Secular Society is in touch with Mr Leach, who is currently appealing against his dismissal internally, to explore whether legal options may be available to him.
Leach was dismissed without notice from his job as a checkout assistant at Asda’s Dewsbury store in West Yorkshire last Wednesday, on the grounds of gross misconduct.
He had removed the post and apologised to his colleagues before he was sacked.
NSS chief executive Stephen Evans said Asda’s decision to dismiss Leach “appears to be exceptionally harsh”.
“Sharing a sketch which mocks religious ideas and suicide bombers on social media should not be grounds for dismissal. Brian Leach has good reason to feel aggrieved and many other British citizens have good reason to feel concern about what this could mean for their own freedom of expression.
“Any actions employers take to protect their reputations must be proportionate. We are therefore keen to explore what options may be open to Mr Leach to redress this situation.
“Regardless of what happens next, this episode should make us sit up and take notice of the power we give to religious offence-takers, particularly in the social media age.”
The NSS has challenged blasphemy laws and codes since its inception in 1866 and played a leading role in the abolition of the blasphemy law in England and Wales in 2008.
In an interview with local paper The Examiner Leach said: “I’m really upset and I would love to know what Billy Connolly would think about what has happened to me.”
An Asda spokesman told The Examiner: “We would never comment on individual circumstances.
“However we do not tolerate any form of discrimination from colleagues or customers and take such behaviour extremely seriously.”
The Spectator blog has a good piece on this, which includes the following and an even earlier reference to Atkinson:
Fortunately, Article 10 of the Human Rights Act 1998 safeguards our right to hold opinions freely without worrying about state interference.
However, Leach’s troubling case sets a dangerous precedent for free speech. Could it mean employees who don’t like religion or have certain political views, should self-censor social media posts hereon in?
Should they be constantly mindful of what they share on their personal Facebook pages or who they retweet or follow on Instagram?
It may not be Asda’s intention, but this is likely to have a much wider chilling effect on free and open discussion on matters of significant public interest. It is likely to also add to our growing culture of censoriousness, emboldening professional grievance mongers who cry ‘phobia’ or ‘racism’ at the drop of a hat, with an aim to stifle (or shut down) debate about inconvenient truths, or perhaps scupper the career prospects of a rival at work.
I asked Asda for comment about Leach’s sacking. A spokesperson told me:
‘We would never comment on individual circumstances, however we do not tolerate any form of discrimination from colleagues or customers and take such behaviour extremely seriously.’
This utterly shameful episode has made me ponder my recent meeting at the Crown Prosecution Service, in which I obtained insights into the hate crime legal framework in England and Wales. Among the nuggets of information, it is important to share something called the Waddington amendment, which was incorporated into the Public Order Act 1986. This was lobbied for by amongst others, another high-profile comedian – the brilliant and wonderfully silly Rowan Atkinson.
Section 29J ‘protection of freedom of expression’ in the Act reads:
‘Nothing in this Part shall be read or given effect in a way which prohibits or restricts discussion, criticism or expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule, insult or abuse of particular religions or the beliefs or practices of their adherents, or of any other belief system or the beliefs or practices of its adherents, or proselytising or urging adherents of a different religion or belief system to cease practising their religion or belief system.’
Note to Asda: notwithstanding your social media policy, the above is within our existing legal framework. It is designed to protect hard fought freedoms in this country, which are vital for the free flow of ideas and thoughts, forming the lifeblood of democracy.
This is certainly a worrying move. Please sign the petition to have him reinstated.
Here is a compilation of Rowan Atkinson mocking religion (I love the classic sketch around 26 minutes):