The incitement of hate

The Reasons: Race, Religion, or Sexual Orientation

Stirring up hatred against people because of their race, or because of religious beliefs or sexual orientation, in the form of making or publishing certain kinds of threatening statement is one boundary to freedom of expression and a crime.

The common elements to the three topics below are that a magistrate can grant a warrant to the police to seize any inflammatory material; all prosecutions must be approved by the Attorney General and, in terms of penalties, on summary conviction it is up to six months’ imprisonment, a fine or both and on indictment up to seven years’ imprisonment or a fine or both.

Stirring up racial hatred

Racial hatred has been defined for legal purposes as ‘hatred against a group of persons defined by reference to colour, race, nationality (including citizenship), or ethnic or national origins’.

The Public Order Act 1986 made it an offence to use threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour with intent to stir up racial hatred in the street or in a public speech. The Act also made it an offence to display, publish or distribute written material that is threatening, abusive or insulting with intent to stir up racial hatred. In both cases, it remains an offence without such intent if hatred is likely to be stirred up regardless.

The repercussions for the media of intent not being necessary to commit an offence could have lead to problems when reporting in direct or indirect quotes inflammatory speeches, manifestos or political propaganda. However, after lobbying by what is now the Society of Editors, the phrase ‘having regard to all the circumstances’ was inserted into the 1986 Act in order to protect news reports of such examples as extreme political rallies. The publication must be considered by a court in context and any prosecution must be approved by the Attorney General. Factors in play include the nature of the publication, its circulation and target market and any special sensitivity that might affect the readership at the time of publication.

The Attorney General in 1987 set down these factors to take into account in such decisions. He also stated that expressing anti-racist views through editorial or letters would not excuse the publication of inflammatory racist material.

Stirring up religious hatred

The Public Order 1986 was amended by the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 which created a new offence; that of stirring up hatred against people on religious grounds. The Act made it an offence to use threatening words or behaviour and, similarly to the 1986 Act, an offence to display, publish or distribute any written material with intent to stir up religious hatred. A further addition made it an offence to use threatening visual images or sounds in a broadcasted programme with intent to stir up religious hatred. Media employees at risk include the programme provider, producer, director and news/ content reader if they had intent.

Religious hatred has been defined as hatred against a group of persons defined by their religious belief or lack of religious beliefs. It is for the courts to decide what is classed as a religion or religious belief, in the context of particular cases. Common religions in the UK include Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Zoroastrianism and Jainism. Branches or sects within a religion can be classed as religious beliefs. The phrase ‘lack of religious beliefs’ protects a group of persons as defined by, for example atheism or humanism.

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For more information on:

  • Stirring up hatred on grounds of sexual orientation