We need free speech for all – even bigots

A football fan has been jailed for posting sectarian comments on the internet. Why aren’t civil libertarians alarmed?

Kevin Rooney

Topics Politics

Stephen Birrell doesn’t like Catholics, he doesn’t like Celtic Football Club manager Neil Lennon and he doesn’t like Celtic supporters. These are not exactly unusual sentiments in certain parts of Scotland. But what is unusual is that last week Birrell was jailed for expressing such prejudices. His crime was to join a Facebook page and share his unpleasant views with the rest of us.

Birrell’s pearls of wisdom included: ‘Hope they all die. Simple. Catholic scumbags. Haha.’; ‘Proud to hate Fenian tattie farmers’; and ‘They’re all ploughing the fields, dirty scumbags. FTP [Fuck the Pope]’. This guy is not a pleasant individual and obviously not likely to turn up on many lists of people we would most like to have dinner with. But no threats were made, there was no incitement to commit acts of violence and Birrell did not actually harm anyone.

Yet the 28-year-old football fan was charged with ‘religiously aggravated’ breach of the peace and sent to prison for eight months. He was also banned from attending any football games in the UK for five years. In short, this was seen as a religious hate crime and all this has happened even before the new Offensive and Threatening Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications Bill (Scotland) is passed by the Scottish Parliament – a law that would introduce prison terms of up to five years for making sectarian comments at football games or on the internet.

The idea of sending someone to prison for expressing their personal hatreds seems bizarre in a society that claims to allow freedom of speech. But in the frenzied atmosphere being whipped up around the new laws, a judge sitting in a Scottish courtroom felt emboldened to deprive a person of his liberty by criminalising his words.

Birrell is not the only victim of this draconian new mood. Last month, my nephew Brendan travelled all the way from West Belfast to Glasgow to see his beloved Celtic play, only to be arrested while entering the ground for shouting ‘Up the IRA’, a slogan still found on many gable ends in his hometown. He was held in prison all day and overnight before being charged with ‘religiously aggravated breach of the peace’. Given the prevailing climate, the addition of ‘religiously aggravated’ turns a minor incident that has been normal behaviour for a section of Celtic fans at games for many years into a serious crime with serious consequences.

And then there were the two fans whose banner mentioned the ‘Huns’, a term used by Celtic supporters (and even some Rangers fans) for many years to describe the Rangers football team and its supporters, a term that has now been criminalised in the rush to label every expression as a symbol of sectarian hatred. These fans were also arrested and one was charged with a hate crime. The case was postponed several times, leaving the fans unaware of their fate.

For months, I have warned that politicians are using the physical attack on Celtic manager Neil Lennon by a Hearts fan to blur the distinction between words and deeds. This poses a serious threat to free speech and civil liberties. But few civil liberties champions have joined this particular campaign, apparently finding the principle of free speech easy to sacrifice when it comes to ‘uncouth’ football fans who upset their liberal sensibilities.

But you don’t need to like fooball fans to defend their right to free expression. I don’t like anything Birrell says or represents, but I defend absolutely his right to say it without being locked up and labelled a criminal.

Birrell’s case, and the many more that will inevitably follow as fans outdo each other in their rush to take offence at the sectarianism of their rivals, have nothing to do with justice and everything to do with the ongoing demonisation of one group – football fans – in society.

Scotland’s first minister, Alex Salmond, can now claim the dubious distinction of presiding over one of the most authoritarian and illiberal pieces of legislation in Western Europe. Anyone who remotely cares about basic civil liberties should howl with rage at the imprisonment of Stephen Birrell and should stand up now to defend free speech and the right of football fans to be offensive, whether on Facebook or in the stands at Ibrox and Celtic Park.

Kevin Rooney is a teacher based in London. He will speaking at the debate Silencing sectarianism: football’s free speech wars at the Battle of Ideas festival on Sunday 30 October.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today