The Rules of Speech Crime

Clive Coleman, BBC News, June 29, 2010

Calling someone a “coconut” might sound harmless but it has landed one woman with a criminal conviction. So what qualifies as a speech crime?

Councillor Shirley Brown has been at the heart of Bristol’s multi-cultural community for 15 years, but in February 2009 she found herself at the centre of an unintended controversy.

While taking part in a debate in the city council she called a female Asian councillor, Jay Jethwa, a “coconut”. The word is used to describe someone who is brown on the outside, but “white” on the inside. In other words, someone who is said to have disregarded their cultural roots.

Brown used the word in a debate about the funding of black and ethnic groups in the city, and was upset that Ms Jethwa was advocating cuts. The whole incident was filmed and can be viewed on YouTube (see internet links, right).

Speaking before the trial, Brown explained why she used the word. “I must admit, I was angry because I thought it was an absolute insult, because she is of Asian background. I was thinking how could you cut funding that is going to impact so many people. So the first thing that came to mind, instead of saying ‘you idiot’, I said ‘you coconut’.”

Although she apologised a few days after the comment, and on several occasions, the matter went to a local and then a national standards hearing.

Brown was reprimanded, briefly suspended from the council and then reinstated. But months later the case escalated when she was charged under the Public Order Act with using “threatening, abusive or insulting words, with intent to cause a person harassment, alarm or distress”.

It’s a serious charge which comes with the threat of a criminal record.

But why, given Brown’s numerous apologies, was it necessary to turn this into a criminal prosecution?

In a statement released before Brown’s trial, the Crown Prosecution Service defended its approach as being “in the public interest . . . because it alleged an offence where the suspect demonstrated hostility towards the victim based on discrimination against the victim’s ethnic origin”.

On Monday Brown was convicted, given a 12-month conditional discharge and ordered to pay costs.

The judgement is an important development in what might be called “speech crime”.

But what can and can’t people say?

Thatcher gibe

The case re-opens the debate on political correctness and freedom of speech which last flared up so publicly when TV presenter Carol Thatcher used the word “golliwog” in the green room of the BBC One programme The One Show.

Ms Thatcher was dismissed from the show, but not prosecuted for the use of the word.

So while “coconut” can be a speech crime, is “golliwog” more acceptable in the eyes of the law?

Although there are clear differences between the two incidents, Brown’s case seems to establish that anyone directing the word “coconut” at a black or Asian person is liable to be prosecuted, in spite of any subsequent apology.

Had the impulsive councillor said something along the lines of “you have disregarded your cultural roots”, she would almost certainly not have been prosecuted. It was the use of the word “coconut” to convey that sense which resulted in her facing trial.

And coconut is not the only word used to signify that a person has disregarded their cultural roots.

Others include “Oreo”, the biscuit which is black on the outside and white on the middle, and “banana” which has been used in the Chinese community to signify “yellow on the outside, white on the inside”.

Heart of identity

Such words are now hugely charged and it would be difficult for the Crown Prosecution Service to fail to prosecute in cases where they are used against an individual from the racial or cultural group concerned.

The words and the level of “threat, abuse or insult” which they convey is very subjective. Some people regard the word “coconut” as highly derogatory. It can be seen as going to the very heart of a person’s cultural identity and amount to an accusation of betrayal.

Bristol’s multi-cultural community were clearly hurt and concerned by the comment from an elected councillor.

To one prominent member of that community, at least, coconut has only one legitimate meaning.

“It’s not acceptable, unless you’re talking about a fruit on a palm tree,” says Amarjit Singh, who manages an Asian day centre in a suburb of the city. “Otherwise it is a racist comment. They should know better, they’re the policy makers. They’re the ones that promote community cohesion.”

Others take the view that the word is only mildly abusive, whilst some do not find it threatening or abusive at all. The way in which it is said, the context and reaction of the person at whom it is directed will all be important factors in considering a prosecution.

But in the age of speech crime, a prosecution for the use of the word can now never be discounted

[Shirley Brown can be heard calling Jay Jethwa a “coconut” here.]

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