From Yid Army to Green Brigade: free speech for football fans?

Saturday 18 October, 10.00 until 11.30, Frobisher 1-3, Barbican Defending Everyday Liberties

Over the past few years, football fans have been treated increasingly as naughty children and issued with a list of rules governing every aspect of their behaviour: don’t stand up, don’t drink outside the ground, don’t swear, don’t sing that song, don’t wear that t-shirt, don’t unfurl that banner, don’t say that, and so on. Viewed with contempt by the political classes and those who run football, supporters are seen as potentially racist, homophobic, sectarian and boorish louts who need to be controlled at every turn.

In the past year or so, however, there has been a particular focus on the policing of what fans say and sing. The Scottish government has introduced a law making the uttering of sectarian songs and words a criminal offence. Supporters of Tottenham Hotspur have been prosecuted for using the words ‘Yid’ and ‘Yiddo’, despite the fact that these are terms applied in a positive way to themselves and their team. In April, three Gillingham fans were arrested on suspicion of a ‘racially aggravated public-order offence’ after reportedly calling Rotherham manager Steve Evans a ‘fat Scottish w***er’. Liverpool FC has released a list of words that will lead to supporters being banned if they use them.

For many, this is a serious issue of free speech, yet civil-liberties groups have been largely conspicuous by their silence when it comes to defending fans. Words that were once regarded as merely coarse are now seen as unacceptable and even worthy of prosecution as new codes of conduct and polite speech etiquettes are imposed from above. Others argue that words that players or other supporters find offensive should be regulated. Football, they say, should be played in an inclusive and non-threatening atmosphere so that families can enjoy the game, too. 

Is terrace singing and shouting a free-speech issue or simply a matter of enforcing proper behaviour? Does real tolerance mean that we should defend the right of football fans to sing and to say what they want, even if some find it offensive? Does such policing of football – a rare arena in which people can let off steam outside the normal rules of behaviour - have consequences for wider society?

Listen to the debate:

Duleep Allirajah
sports columnist, spiked; Crystal Palace fan

Jeanette Findlay
founder member, Fans Against Criminalisation

Adrian Hart
author, That's Racist! How the regulation of speech and thought divides us all and Leave those kids alone – How official hate speech regulation interferes in school life

Peter Tatchell
human rights campaigner; director, Peter Tatchell Foundation

Kevin Rooney
politics teacher and head of social science, Queen's School, Bushey; co-author, Who's Afraid Of The Easter Rising?

Produced by
Kevin Rooney politics teacher and head of social science, Queen's School, Bushey; co-author, Who's Afraid Of The Easter Rising?
Recommended readings
A war the Yid Army must win

Why all football fans should back the right of Spurs supporters to be Yiddos.

Tim Black, spiked, 15 January 2014

SFA to vote on tough sectarianism, racism rules

Tough new laws on dealing with racism, sectarianism and other forms of unacceptable behaviour in football will be voted on at Tuesday’s annual general meeting of the Scottish Football Association at Hampden Park.

Alan Pattullo, The Scotsman, 9 June 2013

English football is racist, and the FA looks the other way

Silence in the FA's own backyard about the chants of England fans to protect some fantasy self-image renders all its other sermons meaningless

Marina Hyde, Guardian, 29 March 2013

Fears over police misuse of anti-sectarian powers

Lawyers have raised concerns that football fans in Scotland are having their human rights undermined by new police powers introduced to crack down on sectarianism.

Gerry Braiden, Herald Scotland, 28 February 2013

The 100-year war against football fans' freedom of speech

To use a bit of terrace lingo, if you don't like what is said at football matches, then f*** off somewhere else.

Brendan O'Neill, Telegraph, 2 April 2012

The tribal instincts now obscuring all hope of a rational view of our game

While Anton Ferdinand agonised over whether he could bring himself to shake the hand of John Terry tomorrow, his club Queens Park Rangers and Chelsea issued a joint statement aimed at dampening down the mood on the terraces.

James Lawton, Evening Standard, 28 January 2012

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