In praise of terrace banter
It’s time to stick up for football fans’ right to trade insults.
Freedom of speech is a right that most of us would wholeheartedly defend. The freedom to speak one’s mind is a hallmark of a democratic society; an essential safeguard against injustice and tyranny. We’ll all sign the online petition and buy the wristband when it’s Vladimir Putin locking up members of Pussy Riot. So, why do so many liberals find it difficult to defend free speech for football fans? Why does the Society of Black Lawyers want Spurs fans prosecuted for referring to themselves as the ‘Yid Army’? Why did we allow the Scottish parliament to criminalise anachronistic songs about the war in Ireland? And why no howls of protest when student Liam Stacey was jailed for posting a racially offensive tweet about Fabrice Muamba, the former Bolton footballer who suffered a cardiac arrest at White Hart Lane?
Let’s try to unpick this conundrum. The argument for banning offensive football songs contains an implicit assumption that freedom of expression is a right which only applies to speech that has some value. It’s a protection for those with something worthwhile to say: radicals, artists, social critics, comedians and satirists. Football chants clearly don’t fit into these categories. There’s clearly nothing particularly enlightening or artistic about the majority of terrace chants. By and large they’re just playground insults. Some are witty and inventive but most are crude, tasteless and puerile.
So why defend the right to trade crass and hurtful insults at football? Take, for example, the notorious Spurs chant aimed at Sol Campbell which alleged that their former captain was a ‘Judas cunt with HIV’. Was this really the type of speech John Stuart Mill had in mind when he wrote On Liberty? I’d argue that this vulgar little ditty is exactly the form of expression we need to defend. Inoffensive speech doesn’t need protection. It’s the offensive stuff that the censors want to curb. When it comes to terrace jibes, it’s not the content of those chants I’m defending; it’s the right to express views or sentiments which cause offence. I don’t care if the chants have little or no artistic merit. The point is that rights are meaningless if we attach conditions to them. And yes this means we have to defend the expression of views we find personally abhorrent. As George Orwell said: ‘If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.’
Many liberal-minded people would agree that terrace banter, which is traditionally vulgar and insulting, shouldn’t be restricted. But, they will often qualify this by saying that we have to draw a line somewhere. Racist chanting, they would argue, crosses that line. Invariably, once a line is drawn, the boundary is liable to shift. In 2008, two Newcastle fans were arrested for chanting ‘shoe bomber’ at Middlesbrough’s Egyptian striker Mido. In 2009, a Millwall fan was arrested for calling a Gillingham player a ‘pikey’. A number of fans have been arrested for homophobic chants directed at Brighton fans. These arrests raise the question: at what point do terrace insults cross the line? Any such boundary is inherently subjective. One person’s playful banter is another’s hate speech. Dave Kitson, the ‘flame-haired’ former Reading and Stoke striker has argued that jibes about ‘gingers’ are no different to racist chants. Last season three Gillingham fans were arrested for allegedly calling Rotherham manager a ‘fat Scottish wanker’. As soon as you accept that some speech is unacceptable it becomes very difficult to know where to draw the line.
As I said, terrace banter isn’t a form of folk poetry; it’s the trading of insults. However, there’s a double standard evident in liberal attitudes to insulting language. Two years ago the actor Rowan Atkinson and gay rights activist Peter Tatchell fronted a successful campaign to amend Section 5 of the Public Order Act which criminalised the use of ‘threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour’. Atkinson quite rightly warned that the outlawing of insults was having a ‘chilling effect on free expression and free protest’. Campaigners pointed to a series of controversial prosecutions under the act including a student who called a police horse ‘gay’ and a 15-year-old who held up an anti-Scientology placard. The campaign to amend Section 5 was laudable but why has there been no similar campaign to defend the right of football fans to insult each? Why is terrace banter any different? Why no crusade to scrap the Football Offences Act 1991 which makes it an offence to ‘engage or take part in chanting of a racialist or indecent nature’ at a football match? Some insults are evidently more equal than others. There’s a distinct whiff of class snobbery at play here; an unspoken belief that free speech is only meant for ‘people like us’, and not for foul-mouthed, white working-class football fans who are easily incited by hate speech.
The trading of insults at football matches is largely ritualistic and theatrical. Terrace chants are an adult variant of the ‘your mum’s so fat’ playground jibes. Do we really believe that the Welsh are sheep shaggers or that Scousers are hubcap thieves? I doubt it. Most supporters know the rules of engagement and are pretty immune to the namecalling and taunts. But there will always be some sensitive souls who are appalled or upset by certain chants. However, just because a chant offends or upsets people, it doesn’t follow that it should be illegal. As Tory MP David Davis, who backed the campaign against Section 5, said: ‘The simple truth is that in a free society, there is no right not to be offended.’
There’s nothing noble about terrace jibes. But we cannot be selective about which forms of expression we seek to protect. The right to hurl vile and offensive abuse at a football match might not be a fashionable cause, but it’s the acid test of whether we are serious about protecting civil liberties.
Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. He will be speaking at the debate From Yid Army to Green Brigade: free speech for football fans? at the Battle of Ideas festival, held at the Barbican in London on 18-19 October. Get tickets here.