First they came for the racists and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a racist. Then they came for the Old Firm sectarians and I didn’t speak out because wasn’t a sectarian. Then they came for the homophobes.
Pastor Martin Niemöller’s famous poem about the rise of the Nazis could just as easily apply to the lack of liberal opposition to the incremental erosion of freedom of expression at football. Initially, the authorities targeted racist chants. Next, it was the Old Firm war songs which were criminalised in Scotland. Now, the Etiquette Inquisition has turned its attentions to anti-gay chants. Last week, the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) issued new guidelines warning fans that they would pursue a ‘robust prosecution policy’ against homophobic chanting.
Most right-minded, Guardian reading folk would quite rightly cry foul at the gagging of stand-up comedians or anti-Scientology protesters or Sam Brown, the Oxford student who called a police horse ‘gay’. Free speech is worth defending when it applies to ‘people like us’. We can all agree that section 5 of the Public Order Act, which outlaws ‘abusive or insulting words or behaviour’, is an affront to liberty. But so-called liberals are conspicuously absent when it comes to defending the right of white working-class men to sing abusive terrace songs. ‘What about racism?’ they say. ‘There have to be limits to free speech.’ This is what I would call the ‘free speech but…’ position. Free speech is fine. But not when it offends our liberal sensibilities.
The selective defence of free speech has allowed a steady erosion of the civil liberties of football supporters in Britain. ‘Racialist or indecent chanting’ at football is a criminal offence under section 3 of the Football Offences Act 1991. Where was the opposition to that piece of legislation? Where were the petitions and demonstrations when the law was passed? There weren’t any. Not a squeak of protest. In fact, the outlawing of racist chanting was warmly applauded by the ‘free speech but…’ brigade. As I’ve argued before on spiked, anti-racism today has become predominantly a demand for the observance of correct racial etiquette. We saw a similar ambivalence in Scotland to the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications Act 2012, which made sectarian chants at football a criminal offence punishable by up to five years’ imprisonment.
Now it’s the turn of fans who sing homophobic songs to face prosecution. We’ve all heard gay taunts at football. Brighton fans are regularly serenaded with choruses of ‘Does your boyfriend know you’re here?’ or ‘We can see you holding hands’. During the Championship play-off semi-final, Crystal Palace fans chanted ‘Stand up, cos you can’t sit down’ and ‘Brighton take it up the bum’. It’s all pretty childish stuff. Unlike racist chanting, which is hostile and aimed at black players, gay chants are directed predominantly at heterosexual men. I doubt any Palace fans seriously believe that the majority of Brighton fans are gay. Brighton fans themselves don’t appear to be particularly offended by the playground taunts. In a poll on the North Stand Chat message board, 70 per cent of Albion fans said they weren’t bothered by the gay taunts. But, as far as the CPS is concerned, homophobic chanting, regardless of context, is a ‘hate crime’.