LONDON -- Mayor Ken Livingstone is free to express his views even if they are offensive, a High Court judge said yesterday, ruling that a disciplinary body was wrong to decide he had violated the city's code of conduct by comparing a Jewish reporter to a Nazi camp guard.
The verdict in Livingstone's appeal was an important victory for the outspoken politician, who fought an expensive, yearlong legal battle against the panel. High Court Justice Andrew Collins two weeks ago quashed the board's order that Livingstone be suspended from office for four weeks.
Many Londoners were puzzled by the popular mayor's refusal to apologize for his comments to Evening Standard reporter Oliver Finegold, a move that probably would have settled the matter quickly.
Prime Minister Tony Blair was among those who urged Livingstone to apologize, but the mayor insisted he had nothing to apologize for. Collins said that the remark was offensive but that Livingstone had the right to express his views ``as forcibly as he thought fit."
``Surprising as it may perhaps appear to some, the right of freedom of speech does extend to abuse," he said in overturning the verdict by the Adjudication Panel for England.
Livingstone insists he has spent his career fighting prejudice and is not anti-Semitic, an allegation he believes was implicit in the outcry over his remark.
``I think it is an incredibly sensible judgment," he said of yesterday's ruling . ``I have always made clear that my words were not intended to cause offense to the Jewish community."
But he said he did intend to offend Finegold, who sought to question him as he was leaving a party celebrating the 20th anniversary of the election of Britain's first openly gay lawmaker. The mayor's lawyer has said he believed the reporter was planning to write an anti-gay story.
When Livingstone asked Finegold whether he had been a ``German war criminal," the reporter replied that, as a Jew, he was offended.
``Well you might be, but actually you are just like a concentration camp guard. You're just doing it because you're paid to, aren't you?" Livingstone said in an exchange Finegold caught on tape.
Collins said that the mayor's comments amounted to ``offensive abuse," and that it was indefensible that it continued even after Finegold said he was Jewish.