A limp-wristed defence of free speech
The lack of protest against new guidelines clamping down on homophobic chants shows free speech only applies to the ‘right’ kind of people
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’.
The ACPO/CPS guidance seeks to draw a distinction between banter and abuse: ‘We recognise, as do the overwhelming majority of decent fans, that there is a place for humour in football, but where the line between humour and offensive behaviour is crossed then positive action will be taken.’ But who decides where to draw the line? What constitutes offensive behaviour is inevitably subjective. Some people are offended by swearing or anti-religious jibes. Should these be banned too? Should we follow the recent example of Liverpool FC and outlaw phrases like ‘man up’ and ‘you play like a girl’ because they are sexist? It’s certainly in very poor taste to sing songs about the Munich air crash, but should this be a criminal offence, too? What about chants of ‘sheep shaggers’ aimed at the Welsh, or jibes such as ‘hubcap thieves’ and ‘granny stabbers’ directed at Scousers? Do these insults cross the decency threshold? Once you start to curb terrace jibes on the grounds that someone might be offended, it becomes extremely difficult to know where to draw the line.
When the homophobic chanters have been banned, who will the authorities come for next? Remember that the law prohibits chanting which is ‘indecent’ – a term capable of being widely interpreted. It’s pretty clear that the clampdown won’t stop with racism or homophobia. As Nick Hawkins, lead sports prosecutor at the CPS, puts it: ‘We’ve seen a welcome rise in recent years in the numbers of families attending football matches together as a result of friendlier atmospheres inside grounds, and that’s a trend that we’d all like to see continue.’ But if we make the matchday atmosphere ‘friendlier’, if we purge all offensive chanting, then we irreparably damage football. Why? Because insult, mockery and obscenity are as much a part of the matchday experience as the half-time pies. A football match has traditionally been a carnival of vulgarity. The stadium is a place where the social norms are temporarily relaxed; where singing and swearing is permitted, and where grown men are allowed to behave like kids for 90 minutes.
Some terrace songs are witty, some are cruel and tasteless, and some are extremely vile and offensive. If you don’t like what fans are singing, then you should take issue with them, confront them and have an argument. But don’t allow the authorities to ban football chants. We should defend the right of football fans to sing what they want. If you don’t speak out against the clampdown on abusive chants, not only will free speech suffer, but football itself will die.
Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter @DuleepOffside.