A letter recently landed on my desk inviting me to speak on a panel about the role of women and religion. At first glance, it seemed exactly the kind of topic I love debating. However, as I glanced through the biographies of the speakers, I realised that one of my potential co-panellists was a man whose views on women I found, at best, insulting, at worst, damaging.
His patronising rhetoric in the past has given rise to many a Tulip rant whether in the confines of my bedroom or in public with friends. Sometimes my rants have been met with equal fury from some whereas others have simply said that he was entitled to his own views and opinions whether they agreed with him or not because we live in a free country.
They are right. I am lucky to live in a free country where the right to speak your mind is so ingrained in our culture. But still, I personally couldn't bear the thought of sharing a platform with someone whose hate inciting views I deemed to be damaging to my community. I also resent that I'll be given equal air time as this man even though his views are probably only shared by a small section of the population. There's a danger that a neutral viewer might get an impression that his is not a minority opinion.
So I started to ponder - where is the fine line between free speech and hate speech? Even if someone is allowed to say something, should I, through engaging with them, help to legitimise views I think damage the community I work hard to protect? Is it my role to go and challenge this speaker so that I can articulate my own arguments? Or is there a point where I can rightfully draw the line of sharing a platform with someone, who in my mind, advocates violence and hate?
When we were told that the English Defence League were gathering in Camden, we researched the organisation and were shocked by their inflammatory anti-Islamic rhetoric which had led to police warnings elsewhere in the country. (EDL leader Tommy Robinson once said "We are against the building of all mosques because they preach homophobia and anti-Semitism which we should not tolerate in this country")
We decided to write to local pubs stating that we did not welcome the EDL messages of hate and discouraged them from hosting the EDL. Legally, the EDL have a right to march but I was clear that I didn't think that the EDL's views were conducive to a safe, cohesive community. Most colleagues from across the political parties agreed with my stance but there were others who felt it was too close to censorship.
I have, occasionally, turned to legal arguments for more guidance. Article 10 of the Human Rights Act gives everyone the right to freedom of expression but states that the right can be limited if there is a proper legal basis to protect 'the interests of public safety, national security or territorial integrity.' On the other hand, the 'Equality Act 2010: Public Sector Equality Duty' states the need to tackle prejudice and promote understanding. But again, what I label as prejudice could easily be another person's belief of the right to free speech.
The truth is that I find the legal framework murky and confusing when trying to deal with issues in local government especially when dealing with extremism of any kind. The government has tried to provide clarity through the revised Prevent Strategy and although it is a partial improvement over the initial one launched in 2007, it still doesn't provide very clear guidelines. Additionally, it is not appropriate for local use because every borough is so different depending on location, ethnic make-up and transitory population amongst other things.
Recently, Camden has been raging with debate over the proposed statue of the late Christopher Hitchens in the borough. Hitchens' sound bites ranging from his views on war ("I don't think the war in Afghanistan was ruthlessly enough waged.") to his views on religion ("Everything about Christianity is contained in the pathetic image of 'the flock.") are now well versed in Camden.
Some residents have been vehement in their opposition to his confrontational style of debate and believe it would be ludicrous to honour him in this way. Others say that his statue would highlight how a highly political borough like Camden values freethinking and, again, freedom of speech.
What actually constitutes hate rhetoric is a well trodden but rarely resolved debate. Although often argued in grandiose, black and white terms, it is specific examples that make this debate particularly difficult. Should you ever limit a march? Who should be honoured with a statue? What kind of events should get the benefit of council resources? And the truth is, I don't have all the answers.
Camden is particularly unique in its ethnic, religious and social make-up, but conversations like this are taking place up and down the country. Councillors are seeking legitimacy through local consensus and coming to their own conclusions. As for this councillor, I think I'll spend my time working to find a solution to our specific dilemmas rather than participating on the panel.