Opinion: Football, Freedom of Speech and the Y-word

spurs yid armyIn the last few days, the Crown Prosecution Service has taken the decision to charge three Tottenham Hotspur supporters with “using threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour or disorderly behaviour”. The charges relate to the use of the word “Yid” by the fans.

The decision to charge the fans should be a cause of major concern to anyone who values freedom of speech and freedom of expression.

For those unaware of the history and context behind the use of the word by Spurs fans, it’s worth a quick explanation.

Tottenham, seen by opposing fans to be a “Jewish club” with a large Jewish fan base, have been subjected to anti-Semitic abuse for decades. One of the manifestations of this abuse was the players, fans and clubs being called Yids.

At some point, Tottenham fans decided that rather than let this word be used as a weapon against them, they would adopt it themselves. Spurs’ perceived “Jewishness” would not be something to be attacked for, but something to be proud of. “Yid”, to the Spurs fans, became a symbol of identity, belonging and pride. Whether Jewish or not, the fans stood together against the anti-Semitism of other supporters.

The word is now ingrained in the culture of Spurs. The fans call themselves the “Yid Army”, when a goal is scored they chant “Yidio”, and loved players are hailed as “Yiddos”. It could be argued that at Tottenham the word has largely lost its racial connotations. To most fans it doesn’t mean Jewish anymore, it means Spurs.

Some people have taken offence at Tottenham supporters’ use of the word, hence the recent furore surrounding it, which has resulted in the arrest and charging of the three fans. However, it is undeniable that when Spurs fans use the word, they use it in a positive way: to praise players, to cheer their team, to deflect abuse, and show solidarity with those who are abused. It is not intended to offend anyone, certainly not the Jewish community.

This is why the CPS decision is so worrying. They have decided that the intent and context in which a word is used is irrelevant and that freedom of speech comes second to the right not to be offended.

This is not just about what football supporters can or can’t sing on a Saturday afternoon, it’s about a fundamental threat to what people will or won’t be allowed to say by the law. It’s about a dangerous precedent being set where something as subjective as offence trumps everything else.

We are probably all offended by something or other, something that another person would have no problem with. Offence cannot be permitted as grounds for censorship, especially when those being censored never intended to offend.

It would be nice to see a Liberal Democrat speaking out in defence of three men who have been charged and in defence of the rights and principles that are being threatened by their cases. Unfortunately, when theses issue involve football supporters, Lib Dems seem to have a blind spot. It’s not the first time the party has stayed silent when the rights we claim to champion have been infringed in the football world.

We shouldn’t forget that while this specific case may be about three football fans and the word they chose to sing at a football match, the repercussions of it could affect us all and the words we choose to use. A Party that calls itself liberal cannot remain silent when freedom of speech is at stake.

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  • “This is why the CPS decision is so worrying. They have decided that the intent and context in which a word is used is irrelevant and that freedom of speech comes second to the right not to be offended.”

    On that reasoning, presumably you could be prosecuted for writing this article, and LDV for publishing it.

  • Chris – I’m not sure whether Section 5 of the Public Order Act (which the men were charged under) covers articles published on the web.

    If it does, then I’d guess, technically yes. If someone complains they’ve been offended/caused distress by it.

  • Cllr Mark Wright 26th Jan '14 - 11:35am

    This is a good article. As Nigel notes, this misguided logic would lead to gay people being prosecuted for calling themselves “queer”, and many other anomalies. It’s a shame that David Badiel is backing all this, he’s a good bloke bit he’s called this one wrong.

  • “Chris – I’m not sure whether Section 5 of the Public Order Act (which the men were charged under) covers articles published on the web.”

    A Law Commission report published just over a year ago said it was not clear whether it did, but noted that some authors had assumed so. So we’d better all be careful …

  • Nonconformistradical 26th Jan '14 - 12:05pm

    ” It’s a shame that David Badiel is backing all this, he’s a good bloke bit he’s called this one wrong.”

    Found an open letter from a Jewish Spurs fan to David Badiel at http://www.101greatgoals.com/blog/a-jewish-spurs-fan-writes-an-excellent-open-letter-to-david-baddiel-about-the-word-yid/

    Quoting from that letter:
    “Chelsea, West Ham, Leeds. These are the three places where I have heard the gassing noises and felt that pang of nausea in my stomach”

    and further down:

    “This is Chelsea’s problem. This is West Ham’s problem. This is Leeds United’s problem”

    Irrespective of whether or not it is acceptable for Spurs fans to call themselves the Yid Army or whatever – there is an issue regarding the CPS going after Spurs fans rather than Chelsea, West Ham or Leeds ones.

  • Mark, Nonconformistradical – Badiel has identified an issue that most Spurs fans are aware of, He (along with the FA, Police & CPS) have gone after completely the wrong target though.

    I know a lot of Spurs fans just can’t understand why it’s these three men in trouble rather than those who’ve engaged in actual anti-Semitism. The hissing, Nazi salutes, songs about Auschwitz have all gone unpunished from other supporter’s, yet it’s Tottenham fans getting in trouble with the law.

  • Chris – Thanks for that.

    Think it gets to the crux of the problem. Do we really want a situation where I could be prosecuted for writing the above article?

  • Paul Head has written a very good and a very clear piece here. People who were unaware of this police action before today must be scratching their heads and thinking the world has gone mad.

    The areas around Tottenham has some problems with policing. According to a recent Ch4 News report in this borough the stop and search powers of the police are four times more likely to be used against young black men than against anyone else. Odd that the police should devote time and resources to how football fans describe themselves rather than putting their own house in order. Has the world gone mad or is this another stupidity of Boris johnson’s police force?

  • I’m a dyed in the wool Gooner but Paul is spot on with this article

  • Matthew Harris 27th Jan ’14 – 8:39am

    On the face of it Matthew’s comment is perfectly reasonable. He does not like aggressive men shouting or chanting on public transport. I share his dislike for noisy and sometimes offensive people on trains and buses. Living as I do close to Twickenham I have occasionally put up with mobs of drunken public school boys on their way home from rugby matches. So far I am have not read of the police taking action against people shouting things about the French. Nor have I read about arrests of cricket fans who shout and chant and describe themselves as “The Barmy Army” and are not always displaying complete respect for Australians.

    But Matthew is of course not just some ordinary man on the Finchley Omnibus who happens to be upset by noisy sports fans. Anyone can read his blog and discover that he has a particular standpoint, which perhaps informs his views on Tottenham policing policy and priorities. People who look at this issue from a less entrenched standpoint might think the Tottenham police should spend more time on improving their community relations reputation and less time scrutinising football fans.

  • Paul in Twickenham 27th Jan '14 - 11:41am

    Re. John Tilley’s comment about “drunken public schoolboys at Twickenham”. I can confirm his observation. I have often had cause to note the post match damage to the saplings planted along the A316 just south of the stadium (and cannot conceive what level of drunkenness is required to make destroying trees seem like fun) and the routine and depressing sight of plastic skiffs littering the roads.

    As a Fulham season ticket holder I am a accustomed to the sight of Spurs travelling supporters wearing shirts with “yid army” in the space where a player’s name is usually put. I have always considered it an example of appropriation of an epithet as others have observed. I am certainly not offended. I would have to add that I have never heard any hissing noises at Craven Cottage either but that could be due to the opprobrium I am busily piling onto my own team.

  • It’s perhaps worth noting that in the case under discussion there was no question of chants “on trains or in pubs”. The alleged offence took place at a football match.

  • Julian Tisi 27th Jan '14 - 2:22pm

    A really good article but I’m not sure I agree.

    On the one hand it does indeed appear to be overkill to target Spurs fans for chanting “Yiddo” when, as Paul Head points out, this chant has been reclaimed by Spurs fans from its previous use as an anti-Semitic chant by certain opposing fans (albeit an anti-Spurs chant in the guise of an anti-Semitic chant). Spurs fans chanting “Yiddo” at White Hart Lane or elsewhere will be identifying themselves as “Yiddos” – even if they’re not Jewish. I can’t quite see how that amounts to racist abuse – unless it’s a form of self-abuse.

    But the problem is that I remember not too many years ago on the North Bank at Highbury you would hear a handful of Arsenal fans singing some truly nasty chants involving “gassing yiddos”. Here’s the thing – if being a Spurs fan means identifying as a “yiddo” I can see a very short step to those chants rearing their heads again by opposing fans. It might not initially be an anti-Semitic thing, more anti-Spurs, but the lines will become blurred. I really don’t want football to go backwards and I think that it was right for Tottenham Hotspur to tell their fans a few months ago that “yiddo” chants would no longer be tolerated.

    Perhaps charging those fans with racial abuse is one step too far – surely bans are more effective anyway – and I’m guessing the fans, identifying themselves as the subject of the abuse didn’t intend the abuse. But that doesn’t make it OK.

  • Julian – I think it’s worth remembering that , firstly, the anti-Semitic chants still happen and secondly the use of Yid by Spurs fan was a response to anti-Semitic abuse not the cause of it. I personally feel that the argument that Spurs fans bring the abuse on themselves is a dangerous one as it could be said to legitimise it ie. if Spurs fans chant Yid they give other fans a reason to be anti-Semitic. (I’m not suggesting you think that but i’ve heard others say it).

    One other point – Tottenham Hotspur have never told the fans to stop using the word – the closest they’ve come is asking fans to be mindful of the words they use considering the police’s position.

  • Matthew – I think the whole discussion about inconsiderate fans on the bus or in the pub is getting slightly off topic. The key here is the charging of people for using a word without any thought of the context or the intent it is used with. In my opinion this sets a dangerous precedent which could have repercussions far outside the football world. That’s the issue I think Liberal Democrats should be speaking up about.

    Of course we should to listen to the views of Jewish people, but it’s important to remember that there are many Jewish Spurs fans who have no problem with it at all, for example Stephen Pollard, Editor of the Jewish Chronicle. The police and CPS are creating a situation where a Jewish person could be arrested for using the term Yid!

    You say “Is there not a case for the fans themselves deciding that it’s time to move on and stop doing it.” I think if the word is dropped by Spurs supporters this is exactly how it should happen. Fans having the discussion amongst themselves and coming to that decision would be fine. When the authorities try to ban a word they create a defiance amongst supporters which stops any chance of people “moving on”

  • John Tilley – “Living as I do close to Twickenham I have occasionally put up with mobs of drunken public school boys on their way home from rugby matches.”

    Ill informed stereotyping. I suggest you go to the Shed and shake the scales from your class-tinted eyes.

  • Alexander Matthews 28th Jan '14 - 1:26pm

    Matthew Harris; you are perfectly right in one sense, but I cannot agree with you in another.

    As a football fan, I find most of the behaviour displayed by football fans to little better than barbaric. They are loud, obnoxious, boorish, rude and sometimes overtly intimidating. I rarely go to football matches anymore because I find spending 90 minutes listening to Derby fans chanting “You… T**T” tedious at best. That is ignoring some of the outright offensive things heard at football matches. I find this problem particularly bad in London (this may be due to the high volume of football fans from so many different clubs in such a small area).

    I say this because I wish for you to understand that I can sympathise (not just empathise) with your concerns and despair.

    However, we should not then blur the lines between the problems with the general conduct of football fans and this very specific set of facts in question. Why? Well, my answer is this; this particular issue relates to a word/set of words, so we need to view it from that position.

    When viewing it from that position, we soon come to realise that most of the chants you hear from football fans are meant to be ‘mildly’ offensive jokes/remarks made at the expense of the other side. These are often questionable, but it is also very questionable whether comments such as ‘sheep shaggers’ really requires police involvement, when everyone knows that being a Derby County Football fan does not make one a ‘lover of sheep’ in the physical sense. This is because when everyone knows the joke is completely groundless/ hyperbolic, it would be hyperbolic to get offended about it.

    As such, the vast majority of verbal comments made at football matches (and beyond) can be distinguished here because some Spur’s fans may actually be Jewish, so the term ‘yid’ may have some real link to them. Now, this may seem to – in part – support your position; however, I think if we look at these issues as what they are, not what we could perceive them to be, then the issue becomes much clearer. A select few of these ‘jokes’ are meant to be outright hurtful/offensive and are, generally speaking, indefensible. If a joke is meant to cause offensive and upset, then it is no longer a joke, but something cruel and something that we should actively working against. The Spurs fans who use the term ‘yid’, do not use it to be offensive, but to actively defuse any offensive intent others who would seek to use it may have. So, clearly, we cannot state that they were clearly trying to cause offense. Next, we do have the issue of people who use terms, such as yid, not really understanding it historic contexts. A good example of this is that the Japanese for disposable cameras is (directly translated) ‘idiot Korean cameras’. Most Japanese people use this phrase without even knowing what it means, or realising that it was made as an insult about Korean people. Whether such ignorance is worthy of police action is questionable, but it is clearly not a complete defence either. In such cases, people should be taught what the term really means and the usage of such terms should be actively discouraged. However, once again, this does not apply here because the Spurs fans, generally, do know what they mean.

    As such, I can understand your concerns about football fans, but I think this issue should not just be swept with the same brush. Each case is individual.

  • Matthew Harris 27th Jan ’14 – 1:46pm
    Matthew, in answer to your direct question, I simply meant you were a candidate in a North London Borough where certain issues are more prominent than they would be in rural Somerset.

  • Simon Banks 30th Jan '14 - 9:40pm

    I agree with Paul. Controversy over how football authorities should react to Spurs’ use of the Y word goes back some years and I can see the difficulty: if you come down heavy on racist fans for calling a Black player the N word and on some other fan for calling an Israeli player a F word Y word (I’m being careful here), but ignore Spurs fans using the Y word because their motivation was impeccable, a racist or anti-semitic fan could claim he’d meant it affectionately, much as Suarez did over the N word. But then in most cases authorities could use their common sense about motivation as the FA did in the Suarez case and actually prosecuting the Spurs fans seems perverse. I’ve myself seen some fifty young, dark-haired white guys at Spurs under an Israeli flag and a “Yid Army” banner many years ago. But then how can Spurs fans using the word when everyone knows they mean it positively be causing alarm or distress?

    And how about now a protester interrupting a speech by a racist leader who’d denied he was a Fascist by shouting “Sieg Heil!” or the like? That would cause alarm or distress, but to the discreet racist. Or maybe shouting “Ils ne passeront pas!” or “No pasaran!” After all, we don’t want the First World War or the Spanish Civil War here – most alarming and distressing.

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