Britain’s Free-Speech Problem
We should be careful before we play fast and loose with our constitution.

John Terry, captain of the English national soccer team


Imagine if New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady were accused of hurling a racist remark at an opponent during an NFL game. Public condemnation would be swift, but it would be unthinkable — not to mention unconstitutional — for prosecutors to bring criminal charges against the Patriots’ signal-caller. 

Not so in Britain, where John Terry — the captain of both the English national soccer team and Chelsea, one of the nation’s most powerful clubs — faces trial on February 1 for allegedly racially slurring an opponent during a recent soccer match.

Terry is no stranger to controversy. In 2010, he was removed as captain of the national team after allegations surfaced that he’d had an affair with a teammate’s girlfriend; he was reinstated as captain a year later. England’s soccer authorities have yet to punish Terry for his latest alleged transgression, as they await the outcome of his legal battle.

If the accusations of racism are true, then the England captain should be swiftly and thoroughly censured. But his punishment should come from soccer’s governing authorities and the court of public opinion, not the criminal courts. Prosecuting Terry or anyone else for hateful speech is misguided and counterproductive.

Terry’s criminal prosecution highlights the gulf between American and British understandings of free speech, and the disconcerting extent to which the land of John Milton and John Stuart Mill is comfortable limiting its citizens’ freedom of expression. Although this is apparently the first time a British soccer player has been prosecuted for racially insensitive remarks made on the pitch, the principle is well established that Britons may be subject to criminal sanctions for taboo speech.

The charges against Terry stem from an October match between Chelsea and Queens Park Rangers. Terry, who is white, is accused of calling QPR’s black central defender, Anton Ferdinand, a “black c***.” Terry does not deny using the phrase but challenges the context in which it was said. His defense is that Ferdinand asked him whether he had used the slur, and Terry simply replied, “No, I didn’t call you a black c***.”

Prosecutors in England charged Terry with a “racially aggravated public order offense,” in violation of the 1998 Crime and Disorder Act. The act authorizes jail time, though Terry faces only a $4,000 fine.

Tragically, accusations of racism are not new in European soccer. Fans sometimes jeer black opponents with monkey noises. Only eight days before Terry allegedly slurred Ferdinand, Liverpool striker Luis Suarez was accused of slurring a black opponent in another English Premier League match. Suarez’s fate has been the inverse of Terry’s — he does not face criminal prosecution, but has been suspended eight matches and fined about $63,000 by the League.

Bigotry exists in America too, but we do not criminally sanction hate speech. We have a faith in the “marketplace of ideas,” the belief that truth is most likely to emerge through the free exchange of ideas and not through censorship. Americans tend to believe that the best way to combat hateful speech like Terry’s alleged slur is to expose it to the antiseptic of public debate, and we are skeptical of empowering the government to label certain ideas “right” or “wrong.” 


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