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Page last updated at 11:42 GMT, Tuesday, 29 June 2010 12:42 UK

The rules of speech crime

By Clive Coleman
BBC Legal Affairs Analyst

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.

Shirley Brown

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.

Oreos and bananas
Oreo biscuits and bananas are used in the same way

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.

Carol Thatcher
Carol Thatcher was sacked by the BBC for saying "golliwog"

Courts trying such cases however face considerable difficulties.

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

Below is a selection of your comments.

As an Asian who has been called a coconut many times, I am not sure if the term is racially offensive but it is hurtful to the recipient, however it is intended. Watching the YouTube clip, Councillor Brown does seem angry at the cuts being discussed but she has time to compose herself before speaking, she takes the time to explain the context of words she is using so should understand that this is a considered personal insult, rather than a comment in anger on the policy in question. She goes on to state that the funding cuts are deplorable etc etc but doesn't explain why or what the funding would have been used for, and so bandying about insults (racial or not) in some kind of party political argument seems not very clever to me. Whoops, did I just call someone stupid? I'm sorry. That should make it better?
Sam, Derby

This debate and others like it reveal a truth about racism that many people prefer to ignore - being anti-racism does *not* mean the ignoring of race, historical context, or individual cultural heritage. What it means is not viewing those things as making someone inferior. It is perfectly acceptable for someone to view themselves as black, be proud of that, and think of it as part of your personal identity. Same for Asian, and, yes, even white too, although historical context obviously makes that last one a little different. It's only racism when you think that your heritage makes you *better* than other people.
Harry, Colchester

My African-American friend openly refers to herself as an Oreo. No wonder people get confused - if she says it, it's OK, if I say it, it's racially abusive?
Gemma, London

I too often hear black and Asian friends refer to each other as coconuts and far worse, but because they are using the phrases it is seen to be acceptable. However if I were to use them I would be guilty of racially motivated abuse. This is a blatant double standard that is grossly unfair, I am tired of the assumption that because I am white I am automatically racist. It is time for ALL ethnic groups to treat each other with respect.
Lynn, London

The term "coconut" is THE all encompassing racial slur. Not only does it imply Black and Asian people should behave one way, it also implies white people behave another way. Whether she is sorry or not, Ms Brown used this word in a derogatory way and as such clearly possesses an underlying "understanding" of the way people should behave based on their skin colour.
Stephen, Birmingham

I understand that the terms "coconut" and "Oreo" could be considered insulting to someone who is black or Asian and, by implication, white. That having been established, is there a list of legally acceptable fruits (not to mention biscuits) currently on the law books to which one can refer in order to adopt a safe armoury of inoffensive pejoratives? E.g. if I were to refer to someone as a "gooseberry", a "lemon" or a "limey", would I be liable for criminal prosecution and might I also run the risk of having my career and livelihood destroyed? When the law strays onto the territory of, what is in effect, the name-calling mentality of the school playground and believes it understands the rules of engagement, the law is a de facto 'Equus Asinus'.
Paul, Guildford, Surrey

It is very easy to use the wrong choice of words in a conversation. After apologising, that should be the end of the matter. Only persistent behaviour should be seen as racism.
Edwina Lee, High Wycombe, UK

I used to work for a predominantly black and ethnic minority company and because I was one of the only white employees I enjoyed the nickname of "The Honkey" with absolutely no bad feeling at all - it defined me in the organisation.
Mostyn, London

It all depends on where you are. In South Africa people call each other "coconut" all the time. It's seen as a mildly insulting, sometimes slightly endearing term, but certainly nobody would ever be taken to court for it or ever get upset about the word. And in a world of stark ethnic difference, the term "coconut" can be a mildly amusing pointer as to the cultural bias of the person named.
Jay, Cape Town, South Africa

Where I live it means hard-headed. Plain and simple.
Stuart, Belize City, Belize

A coconut, apart from being brown outside and white inside, is also hard outside and soft (pure/unblemished) inside. Many a great man (no gender bias intended) in India are referred to be like a coconut - strict, disciplined, tough on the outside and soft, caring, forgiving on the inside. In this case, an angry mind misjudged the reaction of the audience to a particular word, but the intent clearly was to avoid funding cuts rather than to insult someone.
Sunil, London

This is a horrible racist word, because it implies that the way you behave towards other people is determined by the colour of your skin. As a white person I find it offensive as it implies there is something inferior about being white. It was certainly unacceptable and racist to use this word. In my opinion it should have lead to disciplinary action, but I'm not sure about prosecution.
Susannah, Gloucestershire, UK

Why is what constitutes a speech crime important? Why aren't we asking "Why are there speech crimes?". Their very existence is ridiculous, meeting words with violence (the state, punishments). It is not a crime and if it is inappropriate then people who say these things will be ostracised, and rightly so.
Euan McArthur, Ulverston

Never mind dancing around with the euphemism disregarding your cultural heritage, "coconut" is plain, old-fashioned racism. Any one who uses the term is revealing their bias that black people should behave a certain way and always be ready to help other black people simply because they are not white. People are just people, enough with the racism already.
Mark, Guildford

Ms Singh must be rather thin-skinned if she feels an insult like this requires the involvement of the courts. Yes, it's racist - mildly so - hurt feelings, let's move on. There is a massive industry of hurt feelings out there which is quite different from real racism, real sexism and real homophobia. Ms Brown was angry: nobody got hurt. Cut her some slack.
Dave J, Norfolk

Surely the most important aspect of this incident is that the offending word was used in anger (at the admission of Ms Brown) and because its use in this context also has racial connotations, the criminal offence is complete. I would, however, suggest that it is specifically this active mental aspect to the use of the word here in a derogatory way that makes Ms Browns behaviour wrong and rightly unlawful but I have long wondered if the automatic branding of someone who uses this or any other potentially 'racist' term in an entirely accidental (some might say 'ignorant') way is equally right. MW.
Martin Winlow, Hetrs, UK

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