The right to crack jokes or be rude about gay people could fall victim to new government laws to stamp out homophobic behaviour, Blackadder and Mr. Bean star Rowan Atkinson warns. Atkinson, who mounted a successful campaign in 2004 to water down legislation aimed at criminalising expressions of religious hatred, has returned to the fray to defend the art of gay leg-pulling, reports the UK's Telegraph newspaper. His concern is that Labour ministers are so obsessed with creating laws to stop people being rude about each other that they are putting in danger the right to free speech and, equally dear to his heart, the comedian's craft. In a letter to a newspaper he accused ministers of filling their legislative programme with measures that have "serious implications for freedom of speech, humour and creative expression". The Criminal Justice Bill currently passing through Parliament could mean people who incite hatred against homosexuals could be prison for up to seven years. Atkinson said the Government measures, which could be expanded to cover hatred against disabled or transgendered people, seemed to be "infinitely extendable". "Witness the fact that the Government has invited two additional groups - the disabled and transsexuals - to 'make the case' for the proposed legislation to be extended to them. "I am sure that they could make a very good case, as indeed could all those who can claim that they cannot help being the way they are. Men, for example, or women. Or people with big ears." Atkinson added: "The devil, as always, will be in the detail but the casual ease which some people move from finding something offensive to wishing to declare it criminal - and are then able to find factions within government to aid their ambitions - is truly depressing." Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary, has told MPs that such fears are unfounded because he will shortly introduce an amendment to the Bill ensuring that cases can be pursued only when the offending words are specifically intended to pose a threat and are not merely humorous, mocking or abusive. As with an eventual compromise deal struck over the Religious Hatred Bill, there will also be a specific clause to protect the right to freedom of speech. Ministers have firmly dismissed as unfounded claims that playground insults or jokes about gays could be caught by the new offence. Openly gay Labour MP Chris Bryant says Atkinson should relax because the right to make jokes about gays would remain: "I think it is perfectly possible to create a distinction in law between incitement to hatred and having a laugh."
Credit: GayNZ.com News Staff
First published: Friday, 9th November 2007 - 3:26pm
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