Lizzie Francis is a legal officer for ADF UK.

Robust and healthy debate is crucial for ideas to be sharpened, assumptions to be challenged, and skills – such as ‘disagreeing well’ – to be learned. But, children are increasingly unlikely to get the chance to engage in debate. With current ‘hate speech’ laws, children are instead expected just to lap up today’s politically correct perspectives and regurgitate them right back – or face negative consequences. The internet provides the prime place for conformity to ‘mainstream ideas only’, and the home provides the ideal outlet for them to exercise the same ‘policing skills’ on others.

Online, children are being increasingly chastised for posting ‘incorrect’ views on private social media platforms. It has emerged that police have been logging non-criminal comments written by children, searchable by future employers using enhanced DBS checks until their 100th birthdays. Since 2014, police have recorded over 2,000 ‘non-crime hate incidents’ against minors – obscure ‘incidents’ which are not actually crimes at all, but speech which some people may find offensive.

‘Non-crime hate incidents’ have dominated so much police time that over 120,000 of them have been logged in police records in five years. Using the rationale of ‘I need to check your thinking’ (in the case of Harry Miller, investigated for tweeting an ‘incorrect’ view about gender), police up and down the country have adopted this surveillance rationale for snooping on private accounts and deciding what expression is permissible, and what is not. In fact, and despite budgets being tight, the College of Policing deems social media content judged by a reader to be insulting to be a ‘priority’ for constables to deal with. 

The police have defined this ‘non-crime’ based on a victim’s perception of speech being motivated, or partially motivated, by hostility; and together with the CPS have defined ‘hostility’ as including opinions of “ill-will, spite, contempt, prejudice, unfriendliness, antagonism, resentment, and disklike”.

Police record complaints about ‘hate incidents’ irrespective of whether there’s sufficient evidence of an offence. Since the complainant’s feelings take primary concern, police operational guidance tells them to ‘not directly challenge the perception [of someone being offended]’. The core element of nearly all crimes, intention to commit a crime, is starkly missing. 

Northamptonshire and Kent police forces have led the way with their ‘non-crime’ reporting of children’s speech. Why they in particular have focused on children’s online expression, is unclear.

But it is fair to say that caution should be given to children in these localities posting their support for their favourite author, J.K. Rowling, and her views; writing their thoughts on sexual ethics taught in Sunday school; or disagreeing with their school’s new policy to make bathrooms gender neutral.  Opinions should be ‘mainstream’ only. Not conservative, and certainly not orthodox.

And, as Orwellian as the thought police is, the way that children are being encouraged to report the ‘speech crimes’ of their family members – including their parents – is equally unsettling. 

The debate in both Scotland and England recently about whether ‘hate speech’ laws should extend to private homes revealed that there was a surprisingly high level of agreement in both nations that it could be perfectly acceptable for children to phone up the police and report their parents for ‘incorrect’ opinions said around the dinner table.

The recently passed Hate Crime Act in Scotland ended up including a crime of ‘stirring up hate’ in the home, where children could presumably be the witnesses against their parents when they’ve said the ‘wrong’ thing.

Although the Law Commission in England and Wales dropped this same idea after a huge public outcry during their consultation, it’s not inconceivable that they revisit these ideas again in the future as pressure increases in EU countries to expand continental ‘hate speech’ laws. 

With the ‘child spy’ idea cropping up when children have been asked by schools to report on Covid-restriction breaches of parents, and the increasing use of juveniles to report on parents committing serious crimes, the principle of children learning to report on family members appears to be growing in popular acceptance. Many local councils in England have also introduced ‘report a hate speech’ helplines specifically for children.

Apart from ‘hate speech’ laws on the whole having a chilling effect on freedom of expression, the impact on children seems doubly worrying. Not only are young children having to learn the art of self-censorship and how to not ‘offend’, when most are still grappling with what to even think, but they’re also growing up in a society teaching them to foster intolerance for the traditional views of even their parents.

This is both indicative of an authoritarian society, and also, sadly, destructive to the intrigue, curiosity, and academic exploration underpinning a child’s personal and educational development. If children are just taught to think according to the majority opinion’s lens, and even mistrust and report on loved ones, we will lose the very essence of the liberal society which we still claim to have.