Monday, June 28, 2010
A Bristol Liberal Democrat Councillor, Shirley Brown, has been found guilty of racial harassment. She called Asian Conservative Jay Jethwa a "coconut" during a debate at Bristol City Council in February 2009, because Jethwa had backed a proposal to cease funding for an organisation set up to support ethnic minorities in Bristol. Mrs Brown's words were:
"In our culture we have a word for you, a word which many in our city would understand, and that's coconut. At the end of the day I look at you as that." The term coconut is used to accuse someone of betraying their race or culture by implying that, like a coconut, they are brown on the outside but white on the inside.
Section 3A of the Race Relations Act provides that harassment occurs where:
"A person subjects another to harassment ... where, on grounds of race or ethnic or national origins, he engages in unwanted conduct which has the purpose or effect of:
• violating that other person's dignity
• creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for him
• conduct shall be regarded as having the effect specified (above) only if, having regard to all the circumstances, including in particular the perception of that other person, it should reasonably be considered as having that effect"
Well, I suppose that being called a "coconut" in those circumstances and with that special meaning is insulting but does it violate a person's dignity, as the magistrate must have concluded ? The insult can only be delivered sensibly to someone with a dark skin but the burden of the insult is about the person's behaviour not their colour. As I write this I am listening to a succession of Labour MPs making similar insults about the behaviour of Liberal Democrats, accusing them of betraying the people they represent, but there's no racial element so you can violate their dignity as much as you like. Above all, I question whether making a remark like this in the absence of violence or any threat of violence should be a crime ? This case is a good example of how easily we limit freedom of speech when we make being offensive a crime. The logic is that you can legally insult me for being a Liberal,a lawyer, a ballet dancer, a fox-hunter or a train-spotter (I am only one of these) because these are all choices I can make. Of course you can also legally insult me for being middle-class, red-haired, short, fat and bald ( I am all but one of these), but I have no choice about any of them. Most of these characteristics are genetic inheritance as much as race is. As a society, we have decided that certain insults are so much worse than others, that they are criminal.
Surely an apology, which I understand was given, should have ended the matter. I have grave doubts that the criminal law is helpful in this situation. Indeed, there is a danger that such cases assist recruitment to the dreadful BNP.