The Big Issue, 20 November 2012

If a novel was pulped for being offensive, or a play was pulled for being immoral, there would be outrage. Rightly so. Censorship has no place in the twenty-first century.

And yet, when football fans are silenced, when the men who spend 90 minutes a week chanting weird and sometimes foul things are forced to shut up, no one raises a peep.

Liberty, self-described guardian of freedom, doesn’t write to MPs. Index on Censorship doesn’t organise a fundraising benefit. The Guardian doesn’t publish hot-headed editorials insisting fans should be as free to express themselves as any erudite playwright.

It seems football fans are one constituency it is okay to censor if they dare to say things that the state or the chattering classes find offensive.

Football grounds have become laboratories of censorship, with fans playing the role of rats to be experimented on by offence-demolishing do-gooders.

Last week Peter Herbert of the Society of Black Lawyers bizarrely threatened to report Tottenham Hotspur FC to the police if it didn’t clamp down on what he called “anti-Semitic abuse” at its home ground.

What he means by anti-Semitic abuse is Spurs fans’ penchant for describing themselves as “Yids” and a “Yid Army”.

Spurs is supported by many Jews, who have reclaimed, and thus totally disarmed, the Y-word, in a similar way that black rappers in America have reclaimed the word “nigger”.

This is not “abuse” at all, nor is it “anti-Semitic”. It’s the very opposite in fact - it’s the use of a derogatory word, by the very people the word was once aimed at, as a means of expressing pride in one’s Jewish and footballing identity.

Only those completely cut off from the rowdy, un-PC arena of modern football - where fans chant all sorts of things about both themselves and their opponents - could believe that thousands of Spurs fans chanting “We are the Yid Army” is anti-Semitic. What next: accusing Niggas With Attitude of being racist?

The casualness with which Herbert threatened to report fans to the cops is indicative of today’s anti-fan censoriousness.

Earlier this year, Nick Hawkins, the man in charge of prosecuting football fans for the Crown Prosecution Service, proposed fining clubs whose fans indulge in “inappropriate crowd behaviour [and] chanting”. Yet what Hawkins considers “inappropriate” might not be considered inappropriate by fans.

Indeed, what Hawkins and Herbert and others don’t seem to appreciate is that the football ground has long been a place where people can legitimately let off steam, scream their heads off, shout the kind of things they would never shout at work or in ASDA.

If a Chelsea fan shouts at Spurs fans, “Screw you Yids!”, it isn’t a sign that he’s anti-Semitic
- it’s a sign that he hates Spurs, as part of the weekly 90-minute rough-and-tumble of footballing rivalry.

It is not surprising that outsiders to this world don’t understand this fact, but it is outrageous that they believe they have the right to police such behaviour.

There is now a raft of measures controlling what fans can say and do.

At many grounds, stewards wear head-cams to capture fans saying untoward things. Imagine if ushers at the opera did the same, filming posh opera-goers’ every move. There’d be uproar. But in football it’s okay apparently.

The police now feel emboldened to confiscate fanzines they judge to be offensive. In February police in Manchester seized all copies of the Man Utd fanzine Red Issue after it published an “offensive” picture mocking Liverpool’s Luis Suarez for allegedly being racist.

Sound like a footballing Stasi, the cops said they would “take appropriate action anyone found selling this particular fanzine”. If police raided a bookshop and seized all copies of an offensive novel, there’d be a benefit dinner for censorship-hating luvvies before you could say “Salman Rushdie”. But fans’ published material is fair game for state censorship, it seems.

The censoring of fans has reached its logical, horrendous conclusion in Scotland. There, under the new Offensive Behaviour at Football Act, fans have been arrested and even jailed for chanting sectarian things at Celtic or Rangers games in particular.

This month, a 19-year-old Rangers fan was sentenced to three months in prison. For singing “offensive songs”. In Scotland. In the twenty-first century.

This is mad. These attacks on fans’ freedom of speech are as despicable as any attempt to censor art or political protesters. Football fans must be free to chant and sing offensively - and if you don’t like what they chant and sing, then don’t go to football matches. Simples.

Read more of my articles for the Big Issue and other publications here.