There are an increasing number of people in the United Kingdom being prosecuted for expressing opinions that other people consider offensive or insulting, or that “incite” crime.
They fall into several broad categories:
Comments that are “offensive” to a particular racial group:
- A woman arrested for using the “insulting” term pikey on facebook
- Two boys arrested for posting racist comments on twitter
- Football fans arrested for racist chanting
Comments that are “offensive” to a particular religious group:
- The former soldier arrested for making anti-muslim remarks
- The schoolgirl arrested for posting Koran burning video on Facebook
- The Atheist arrested for leaving anti Christian leaflets at an airport
- The football fan arrested for posting anti Catholic comments on Facebook
Comments that are “offensive” to a particular sexual orientation:
- Muslims arrested for distributing leaflets objecting to a gay lifestyle
- Footballer fined £6,000 for offensive anti-gay post on Twitter
- Street Preacher convicted for displaying an anti gay sign
Comments that are just generally “offensive”:
- Councillor arrested for sending offensive text message
- Man arrested for posting abusive messages on Facebook and Youtube
- Man arrested for offensive drunken facebook rant against ex partner
- Police called in after brass band suffers offensive tweets
Comments that “incite” others to commit a crime:
- Dundee teenagers sent to prison for Facebook comments inciting rioting
- Cardiff man sent to prison for Facebook comments inciting violent disorder
- Former soldier charged for sending a text that incited rioting
Now, don’t misunderstand me, I do not agree with, or support in any way, any of the comments above. In every case the opinion expressed is either stupid, offensive, ignorant, hurtful, or all all of the above. They are certainly not the sorts of thing that nice people like you and me would say to anyone. But, that’s really the whole point of freedom of speech:
“Free speech is meant to protect unpopular speech. Popular speech, by definition, needs no protection.”
“If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.”
But why is freedom of speech such an important thing?
Why would anybody want to protect the freedom of people to say things that “incite” criminal activity or are “offensive” to others ?
John Stuart Mill in his classic book “On Liberty” put one case for freedom of speech on the grounds that we risk suppressing the truth:
Today we consider slavery to be abhorrent, freedom of religious views and freedom of sexual orientation to be important, but this was not always the case:
Those who wish to suppress freedom of speech on race grounds should consider:
In the American South for many years, slavery was widely accepted. To speak out against it would have been “offensive” to the majority of slave owners. It would also be the crime of “incitement”, as this extract from an 1855 Kansas Slave Property Law shows:
If any free person shall by speaking, writing or printing advise, persuade or induce any slaves to rebel, conspire against or murder any citizens of this Territory, or shall bring into printed, written, published or circulated, or shall knowingly aid or assist in the bringing into printing, publishing, writing or circulating in this Territory any book, paper, magazine, pamphlet or circulation for the purpose of exciting insurrection, rebellion, revolt, or conspiracy on the part of slaves, free Negroes or mulattoes against the citizens of the Territory or any part of them, such person shall be guilty of felony and suffer death.
Those who wish to suppress freedom of speech on religious grounds should consider:
In Roman times the ideas of Christianity were considered “offensive”, particularly the refusal to make sacrifices to the Roman Gods. Denial of the Roman Gods was a crime and the whole religion of Christianity was therefore an “incitement” to break the law. (In the Biblical account, Jesus was also sentenced to death for blasphemy, for the “offensive”, and to them clearly untrue, claim that he was the son of God)
Those who wish to suppress freedom of speech on sexual orientation grounds should consider:
In 19th and 18th century England homosexuality was a criminal offence and the general population would have considered any comments promoting it to be “offensive” to public morals and perhaps an “incitement” to commit the criminal act. A view of trials and negative social commentary from the time can be found here .The last recorded use of the death penalty for the crime of committing a homosexual act was as recent as 1836
The point being, that views about what is offensive, and what is a crime to incite, change over time. The people of the past were sure they were right, we now disagree.
The change of opinion could not have been made if the offensive free speech of the time had been suppressed.
I can put it no better than John Stuart Mill:
“The opinion which it is attempted to suppress by authority may possibly be true. Those who desire to suppress it, of course deny its truth; but they are not infallible. They have no authority to decide the question for all mankind, and exclude every other person from the means of judging. To refuse a hearing to an opinion, because they are sure that it is false, is to assume that their certainty is the same thing as absolute certainty. All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility.”
It is not just correct views that benefit from freedom of speech. Mill also argued that the only way to fully discredit wrong views is hold them up to the light and expose their stupidity for all to see.
“Wrong opinions and practices gradually yield to fact and argument: but facts and arguments, to produce any effect on the mind, must be brought before it. Very few facts are able to tell their own story, without comments to bring out their meaning.”
Isn’t it less likely that people will be drawn to racist or homophobic views if these views are expressed by their advocates and then roundly demolished, publicly by their opponents?
Aren’t these repulsive views more likely to attract the gullible, shallow thinkers, if they hear racist, or homophobic views in private and never hear the arguments that show the views to be false?
Historically, this has widely been recognised as the truth:
“A nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people.”
John F. Kennedy
“Men are apt to mistake the strength of their feeling for the strength of their argument. The heated mind resents the chill touch and relentless scrutiny of logic.”
William E. Gladstone
However, the public now seem to have been guided by the media to the opposite view where everything from potentially offensive jokes to descriptions of groups with negative connotations must not be heard. Political correctness has become yet another Jackboot stomping on the throat of free speech.
Making it a crime to use offensive comments about someone’s beliefs, may start with religion, but once that has been widely accepted it is a small step to encompass political beliefs and provide an open door for state force to silence its critics:
- In Thailand a man is sent to prison for 15 years for making insulting remarks about the monarchy
- In China a man is sentenced to 9 years in prison for writing essays declared subversive
- In China writers charged with incitement to subversion
- Blogger killed in custody in Bahrain after arrest for promoting sectarianism
If you think that this sort of thing only happens in other countries, you need to shake yourself out of your complacency. We already have a draconian law on the statute book that could have been used to imprison all the people above, here in the United Kingdom:
Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986, which states:
(1)A person is guilty of an offence if he—
(a) uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour, or
(b) displays any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting,
within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby.
So, what can be done to protect what’s left of our right to free speech and perhaps even reclaim what has already been lost ?
We must put the case for free speech as forcefully as we can at every opportunity, we must take to task those who propose criminal sanctions for making comments and we must try to turn back the tide of public opinion to favour freedom over political correctness.
However, we must now do so with one hand tied behind our back, ensuring that our passion never crosses the line and becomes “insulting”, that our arguments can never be thought “offensive” and that we do not inadvertently give the impression we are “inciting” anyone to take any actions.