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Artillery Row

The football world’s war on free speech

Football authorities are attempting to insist on what political values players and supporters should represent

AS Monaco FC midfielder Mohamed Camara has been suspended for four matches after covering up an LGBT support badge on his game jersey during a recent Ligue 1 match.

The badge featured as part of a “rainbow shirt scheme” originally established three years ago by French football’s governing body, the Ligue de Football Professionnel (LRP), which obligates clubs in France’s top two divisions to customise their shirts for one matchday every season to coincide with “International Day against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia”.

Camara, a 24 year-old Mali international, didn’t speak out against the campaign, or overtly condemn any particular group, but simply placed white tape over the campaign logo on his chest during the club’s 4-0 win over Nantes on 19th May.

In a statement, the LFP said it took the decision to impose the ban “after hearing from Camara, and noting his refusal during the meeting to carry out one or more actions to raise awareness of the fight against homophobia”. As a practising Muslim, Camara cited “religious reasons” for refusing to take part in the initiative. 

The move by LFP to sanction Camera is the latest troubling sign that football authorities across Europe are seeking to impose a radically “progressive” equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) agenda that, in its headlong rush to protect the rights of certain pre-identified “vulnerable” and “marginalised” groups, infringes the rights of others to freedom of expression as established by both Strasbourg jurisprudence and national case law. 

Not that many establishment figures seemed to recognise – or ‘care’ – that the rights of various other groups are engaged by LFP’s hardline attempt to shepherd what it appears to regard as a maddeningly retrograde flock of football enthusiasts towards the broad sunlit uplands of “The Right Side of History”.

Following Camara’s refusal to comply, French Sports Minister Amelie Oudea-Castera said the player should be subject to “the strongest sanctions”.

“It is unacceptable behaviour,” Oudea-Castera told French radio station RTL. “I had the chance to tell the [LFP] what I thought about it last night and I think such behaviour must be subject to the strongest sanctions against the player and the club which allowed it to happen.”

Monaco chief executive Thiago Scuro was also quick to tell French media that the club supports the LFP’s campaign, and that they would be having a “conversation” with Camara “internally” to “discuss this situation”.

It was left to the Malian Football Federation to issue a statement in support of their international star, saying “players are citizens like any others, whose fundamental rights must be protected in all circumstances”.

This isn’t the first time the LFP-backed scheme has met with resistance. Last year, several Toulouse players were left out of the club’s match-day squad for a game against Nantes having indicated their reluctance to wear a rainbow flag-themed shirt.

Moroccan international midfielder Zakaria Aboukhlal was the only one of the three players to comment publicly on the move. “Respect is a value that I hold in great esteem. It extends to others, but it also encompasses respect for my own personal beliefs,” he said in a statement on social media. “Hence, I don’t believe I am the most suitable person to participate in this campaign.”

Toulouse later confirmed that the players had been sidelined over their “disagreement” with the campaign, but that the club were “respectful” of their individual choices.

Nantes striker Mostafa Mohamed wasn’t so lucky, however. Having sat out the match for the same reason, he was fined by his club, which then pointedly donated the money to a local LGBT charity.

In 2022, when the then PSG midfielder Idrissa Gueye refused to wear the LGBT colours, he managed to avoid a club sanction, but was criticised by a number of political figures in France.

In an extraordinary leaked email, the National Council of Ethics of the French Football Federation (FFF) demanded an explanation from Gueye. “There are two possibilities,” they wrote. “Either these allegations are unfounded, and we invited you to speak without delay to silence these rumours. For example, we invite you to accompany your message with a photograph wearing said shirt. Or the rumours are true and we invite you to realise the impact of your act, and the grave error committed.”

As the sports journalist Martin Samuel remarked at the time: “The politeness in the FFF’s discourse is laughable. They are not inviting Gueye to do anything. They are telling him. This is what you must say; this is what you must wear.”

The recent spate of incidents in which LFP-led attempts to compel expression failed have led some commentators to suggest that players’ contracts should from now on contain specific stipulations about joining anti-discrimination campaigns, making it more difficult for them to refuse to participate in political campaigns.

“Every player’s contract can be bespoke,” commented Andy Scott, an international football editor for the Agence France-Presse in Paris. “It can be as specific as ‘This player will have a VIP box for his family at matches.’ There’s no reason why going forward, participating in these types of [anti-discrimination] campaigns couldn’t be included in a contract. As in, ‘You must participate in these campaigns because it’s damaging for our image if you don’t.’”

It’s clearly important for professionals of all kinds to be held to high standards of behaviour, and no doubt every Ligue 1 already has in place a code of conduct or statement of values that applies to all staff across a broad range of circumstances — wherever conduct could reasonably be considered to reflect upon the profession.

That said, however, there are a number of reasons why “upstream” employer-led speech codes of the kind proposed by Mr Scott, as well as “downstream” sanctions of the kind recently imposed on Camara by his employer’s governing body may not be legally watertight. 

There will of course be some people who find Camera’s latent views on homosexuality distasteful, perhaps even privately considering that the LFP’s stance has much to commend it. Fair enough. But we shouldn’t forget that this is a moral response to what in a pluralist liberal democracy is properly framed and understood as a legal issue.

Yes, Camara is a member of the category “practising Muslim” — but as with “gender critical feminists”, “vaccine sceptics”, “Christians”, “hard-left trade unionists” and the various other social category types currently attracting moral opprobrium thanks to the unstinting priggishness of the West’s normative elites and their progressive shock troops in the corporate and third sectors, he is also and at the same time a “citizen with right rights to freedom of thought, conscience and religion”.

As the legal scholar Professor Eric Barendt noted nearly 40 years ago in his classic Freedom of Speech, the right not to speak — or “negative freedom of speech” — is closely linked with freedom of belief and conscience and with underlying rights to human dignity, which would be “seriously compromised” by a requirement to “enunciate opinions which are not in truth held by the individual”.

At the global level, article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948 deals with the right to freedom of opinion and expression, and is given effect internationally by article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). 

Over the years, the UN Human Rights Committee has prepared and adopted several “general comments” on the ICCPR intended to assist member states in fulfilling their obligations under the Covenant. In General Comment no. 34, which deals specifically with article 19, the Committee notes that “[a]ny form of effort to coerce the holding or not holding of any opinion is prohibited. Freedom to express one’s opinion necessarily includes freedom not to express one’s opinion.”

Strasbourg case law on article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) suggests a similarly broad interpretation of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, encompassing not just the ability to freely express one’s lawful beliefs, but also the ability not to manifest beliefs that one does not hold.

In Buscarini & others v San Marino (1999), for instance, the Grand Chamber held that it was a violation of article 9 to require non-believers to take an oath on the Christian Gospels on pain of forfeiting their parliamentary seats. Citing Kokkinakis v Greece (1993), the Court reiterated that: “As enshrined in article 9, freedom of thought, conscience and religion is one of the foundations of a ‘democratic society’ within the meaning of the Convention. Importantly, however, it then went further, noting that this freedom “entails, inter alia, freedom to hold or not to hold religious beliefs and to practise or not to practise a religion”.

Article 9’s protection for negative rights, in particular the freedom not to hold religious beliefs and not to practise religious beliefs, was reiterated in Stavropoulos and others v Greece (2020). But this ruling actually goes a little further, and should be required reading for any “progressive” organisations currently engaged in scoping out their next virtue signalling initiative and wondering whether it might not be rather jolly to follow in the LFP’s footsteps.

Negative rights, the court concludes, encompass the right not to be “indirectly outed”; that is, the right not to participate in any interaction where a person’s failure to perform a requested action or gesture will be publicly observable and as such risk conveying, or being perceived to convey, information about that person’s belief-system. As per the ruling:

… the right to manifest one’s religion or beliefs also has a negative aspect, namely an individual’s right not to be obliged to disclose his or her religion or beliefs and not to be obliged to at in such a way that it is possible to conclude that he or she holds – or does not hold – such beliefs. (Emphasis added).

Then there’s RT (Zimbabwe) & Ors v Secretary of State for the Home Department (2012), a UK Supreme Court case which demonstrates that protections for the forum internum in international law stretch beyond religion to encompass thought and conscience more generally.  

At issue in this case was whether asylum seekers should be sent back to Zimbabwe where they would face a real risk of persecution if they refused to demonstrate positive support for the then regime in that country. In the court’s judgment, Lord Dyson concludes:

under both international and European human rights law, the right to freedom of thought, opinion and expression protects non-believers as well as believers and extends to the freedom not to hold and not to express opinions. It is true that much of the case-law and commentary is on freedom of belief in the context of religion, rather than other kinds of belief (whether political, philosophical or otherwise). But I see no basis for distinguishing between the freedom to hold and express different kinds of belief here.

Nobody should be forced to have or express a political opinion in which he does not believe. He should not be required to dissemble on pain of persecution.

Not that any of this will matter in Mohamed Camara’s case. With a current market value to his employer of approximately €25 million, it seems unlikely that the “conversation” Monaco chief executive Thiago Scuro says he wants to have with his employee’s representatives will be conducted in a spirit of anything other than the utmost cordiality and goodwill.

It is in any case a moot point as to whether this situation will arise again. Such are the machinations of fate in the world of rapacious, highly commoditised elite-level sport — where empty gestures, woke platitudes and progressive sloganeering help keep the advertising moolah rolling in — that Camara may well find he picks up a “slight knock” in training just days before the corresponding fixture next season, sadly but unavoidably putting him out of contention for the matchday squad.

Beyond the specifics of Camara’s individual case, however, LFP’s actions, the casual complacency with which its “rainbow badge scheme” was implemented points to a wider, distinctly troubling pattern of behaviour. Across Europe, elite football clubs and footballing authorities are growing increasingly irritated by fans and players who refuse to publicly endorse “progressive” values.

Earlier this year, for instance, it emerged that Newcastle United Football Club (NUFC) supporter and Free Speech Union member Linzi Smith has been banned from attending home matches during the season just ended and for the next two for expressing legally protected gender critical views online.

Her “crime” in the eyes of her hometown club was to criticise the view that men who identify as women should be treated as if they were indistinguishable from biological women, including being able to access women’s changing rooms, compete against women in sports like football and rugby and be housed in women’s jails.

The fact that Linzi was prevented from supporting her beloved team in this way is bad enough. But while supporting Linzi, the FSU has also discovered a shadowy investigation unit with an opaque remit embedded within the Premier League that spied on her at NUFC’s behest.

This Stasi-style investigation into her allegedly “transphobic” wrongthink detailed where she lives, works, what parts of the country she has connections to, and even where she walks her dog — chillingly, the dossier described her as “the target”.

It was following receipt of this report that NUFC took the decision to ban Linzi from the stadium.

With our help, Linzi has appointed solicitors who have written a pre-action protocol letter to the club and the Premier League, demanding compensation and an end to the ban. No service provider or membership association should wield such power, and the purpose of Linzi’s legal action is to ensure that she is duly compensated for the infringement of her rights under the Equality Act and the Data Protection Act, and the harm she’s suffered as a result.

At the FSU, we fear that what happened to her isn’t some one-off aberration, but constitutes part of a wider trend that may now have affected thousands of fans. In March 2022, the Premier League itself admitted it had carried out 400 investigations.

In the German Bundesliga too, attempts are now underway to police what fans say about matters of ongoing public debate, and where necessary either curtail their freedom of expression or politically ‘re-educate’ them if ever they say something perfectly lawful that happens not to align with fashionable orthodoxy.

Back in January, the German Football Association (DFB) ordered Bundesliga club Bayer Leverkusen to pay an €18,000 fine after fans at a game in November 2023 held a banner aloft that appeared to take aim at trans ideology. The “gender critical” slogan read: “There are many genres of music, but only two genders.”

As is so often the way whenever football matches take place in pluralist liberal democracies rather than totalitarian states like, say, North Korea or Myanmar, Leverkusen’s supporters were exercising their right to “wind-up” rival supporters whose team, Werder Bremen, they regard as unbearably woke.

Not that the DFB saw it that way. Having ruled that the banner constituted “discriminatory unsportsmanlike behaviour”, the association then stipulated that a third of the €18,000 fine must be used for “preventive measures against discrimination”, with the club now required to submit evidence of the steps it is taking to stamp down on the public expression of gender critical beliefs by July. 

Back in the 1970s, of course, East Germany had a wonderfully efficient, low-cost grassroots system for keeping tabs on people’s political beliefs — perhaps with only €6,000 to spend, the club should look to revive that system.

Fernando Carro, the Bayer Leverkusen CEO, was in complete agreement with the DFB’s decision. “Tasteless and wrong,” was how he described the banner, before adding that it had “nothing to do with values such as openness and tolerance that Bayer Leverkusen stands for as an organisation.”

Politicians from the mainstream parties, such as the governing social democrats, the Greens, and the opposition centre-right CDU/CSU were also quick to denounce the action of the supporters, with only the right-wing AfD saying that what the Leverkusen fans stated — namely that there are only two genders — is “absolutely right”, and even if it were not, the fans have their right to an opinion, and shouldn’t be fined.

Unfortunately, more “preventative measures” may now be required 300 miles away in Dresden. Late last season, and following the DFB’s ruling, politically suspect supporters of the Bundesliga club Dynamo Dresden displayed a banner aimed specifically at the DFB. Its slogan?

“There is only one ridiculous DFB… and two genders.”

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