Americans who have expressed suspicion and bewilderment at the vehemence with which CNN’s Piers Morgan has criticized the constitutional settlement of his adopted land will presumably be relieved to learn that it is habitual. Morgan, whose endless sense of moral superiority has led him to the conclusion that he alone hopes for “fewer school shootings” has turned himself into something of a joke during his time in the United States — serving unwittingly as a salutary lesson against preening while ignorant and inspiring hordes of people with no discernible talent into the belief that they, too, might one day have their own television show.
His pronouncements have become the stuff of legend. Soon after emigrating, Morgan announced that the Constitution of the United States was “well intentioned” but “inherently flawed.” Later, he got a little more specific, exposing his well-developed Messiah complex and promising to “keep ‘banging on and on’ about the epidemic” of gun violence in America. Why? Well, “because somebody has to, right?”
As it happens, I struggle to see precisely how the United States would be materially worse off if Morgan’s desperate one-man campaign against the Second Amendment were to be brought to a premature close. Nevertheless, if reactionary censoriousness is your thing, you will be heartened to learn that, of late, Morgan has begin taking shots at another cherished American right: the right to speak freely. Explaining that he was trying to create a world with “fewer racists,” our enterprising hero this week took to Twitter to back up British football commentator Stan Collymore and to endorse Collymore’s ongoing crusade to lock up everybody who is awful on the Internet. The results have been predictably ugly.
And yet, in pursuit of his commendable aims, Collymore has shown an alarming tendency to involve authorities where they do not belong — a tendency that Morgan has wholeheartedly endorsed. “Seems to be a few who think that calling someone a W*g, ni***r or c**n and being arrested for it is an infringement of FoS,” Collymore wrote recently, before labeling such people “Idiots.” Well, yes actually, Stan: Having people arrested for using ugly words is a perfect example of “infringement of freedom of speech.” In fact, it is pretty much the textbook definition. Now, Collymore is certainly correct to note that saying ghastly things has, alas, been broadly criminalized in England — “racist/homophobic/sexist hate messages . . . are illegal in the UK,” he records — but he is absolutely wrong to conflate timeless rights and the temporary rules that affect them.
It is disquieting how many arguments in favor of censorship rely on the fatuous principle that “It’s. The. Law” — as if this, and not the merit of its being so, were the question at hand, and as if fundamental human rights simply disappear if the government of the day chooses to ignore them. Explaining his behavior on BBC Radio 4, Collymore proclaimed that he was surprised by “how many people, and I think particularly people that watch too many American soap operas, claim it’s a freedom-of-speech issue.” “Yes,” he conceded, “in theory you should be able to say exactly what you like but if you came up and said exactly the same things to me in the street or at a football match or at a theatre, you would be arrested.”
In Britain, perhaps you would — albeit perilously inconsistently. But, one might ask, “So what?” The argument against governments’ arresting people for speaking is a simple and compelling one: That the state has no business deciding or codifying what is “offensive” or “alarming” or “hateful” — and, by extension, what is “acceptable” speech — and that conferring on the potential victims the capacity subjectively to define those things is inherently dangerous. There is a crucial difference between saying something that is hurtful to another human being (an act that at every stage does involve only words) and threatening to kill him (an act that prefigures physical violence). Would that the British had shown the same willingness to draw a distinction as have their cousins across the pond.
Once upon a time, they did. But then came the Public Order Act of 1986, which reified into law the principle that any “threatening” “insulting,” or “abusive” speech that could be construed as “causing that or another person harassment, alarm or distress” was verboten. Last year’s over-celebrated revision, which determined that “the use of insulting language will no longer be illegal in cases in which a specific victim cannot be identified,” was an improvement in the meager sense that the Titanic’s having hit a slightly smaller iceberg would have been an improvement. But it nonetheless left the basic problem intact: that for the last 30 years, Britain has attempted to criminalize unpleasantness.
It should be noted that neither Collymore nor Morgan, who is cheering him on, are saying, regretfully, “Oh well, I suppose that’s the law.” They are, in fact, taking an active role in using it — prepensely shopping the obnoxious and the execrable to the state in the hope that they will be punished. According to the British tabloid the Daily Mirror, Collymore “has forwarded 22 tweets to the police, and pressure group Kick It Out also reported several anti-Semitic and racist tweets.” From America, meanwhile, Morgan expressed his support for his friend’s authoritarian proclivities: “I agree with @StanCollymore,” Morgan wrote obsequiously. “You can’t spew racist abuse or make death threats on TV or radio, why should Twitter be any different?” (Death threats and “racist abuse” are not the same thing, of course.) Morgan then requested “all my 3.9m followers to tweet a complaint about @PhilippLad to @TwitterUK & @metpoliceuk — let’s do this. #DeathThreats #Racism.”
Those who are reading these words and quietly wondering if this is all a storm in a quaint English teacup have not been paying attention to recent events. West Midlands Police — the force responsible for the part of England in which Collymore lives — confirmed quickly that authorities in a neighboring county “are investigating alleged abusive tweets to @StanCollymore.” The London Met, too, announced that it was on the case. And here’s the thing: When Morgan so excitedly writes, “Let’s do this,” he means it. Indeed, Collymore has a solid conviction rate. In 2012, he noticed an appallingly racist rant that a drunk teenager named Liam Stacey had thrown out onto Twitter, and he reported Stacey to the government. Local police dutifully arrested Stacey, charged him with incitement to racial hatred, and sent him to court. At the trial, the judge made it known that he was sending him to jail “to reflect the public outrage” — a chilling sentence to hear in a putatively free country. Stacey got 56 days inside.
Other speakers have met similar fates. In December, a store owner from the West Midlands city of Staffordshire made a crude joke on his Facebook page: “My PC takes so long to shut down,” the man wrote, “I’ve decided to call it Nelson Mandela.” This tasteless but relatively innocuous crack so upset a local government employee that he had the man arrested, fingerprinted, and DNA-swabbed — and then had his computers seized for good measure. And why not? After all, the anti-speech laws have ensnared all sorts of people in recent years: a student who told a police officer that his horse was “gay”; atheists criticizing the religious; the religious criticizing atheists; Muslims who have expressed their opposition to homosexuality — and even a man singing the song “Kung Fu Fighting” at a bar.
Free societies rely for their integrity on the public’s willingness to accept that principle must transcend personal feeling and presume, too, that the people will keep faith in the Enlightenment notion that truth can stand by itself. “Subject opinion to coercion,” Thomas Jefferson wrote, and “whom will you make your inquisitors?” Are we to presume that Piers Morgan — who is a journalist, remember — has such a low opinion of both his old and his new countries that he fears that horridness will spread if unpunished by force, and so would answer: “The West Midlands police!”?
Evidently so. For shame, Piers. For shame. But I can’t say I’m surprised.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.