British Freedom of Speech Endangered
John Stuart Mill, where art thou?

Liam Stacey


What Liam Stacey said was horrible and mean-spirited. But he deserves our opprobrium, not jail time. Short-lived will be the society that overturns its foundational liberties for two-bit bigots. As always, free speech must apply as much to people we don’t like — to those who say obnoxious and awful things — as to those we do. Sadly, judging by the “hate speech” laws that are filling Britain’s books, and by the reaction to this case, few on the Sceptred Isle seem to care about such things anymore; nor really to understand that the statements “I deplore the Ku Klux Klan” and “but they have every right to speak” are not mutually exclusive propositions. This is a problem, because at the root of seemingly widespread British pleasure toward Liam Stacey’s incarceration is not a desire for revenge, but a cancerous insecurity — an insecurity that hinges upon the fear that the British are just so easily tempted by authoritarianism and by the words of men who hold the wrong values that the government needs to arrest and silence the outliers.

This is a position that makes no sense. Liberty predates government and the freest governments are of the people. The British state, full of flawed men, cannot possibly ossify truth and set it in aspic to inure it from inquiry and injury inflicted by others. As Thomas Jefferson noted: “Truth can stand by itself. Subject opinion to coercion: whom will you make your inquisitors? Fallible men; men governed by bad passions, by private as well as public reasons. And why subject it to coercion? To produce uniformity. But is uniformity of opinion desirable? No more than of face and stature.”

Jefferson was defending free speech on the grounds that it fostered religious toleration and, in this particular case, “uniformity of opinion” is indeed desirable. Britain certainly does not need more racists like Liam Stacey to achieve a virtuous diversity of opinion. But there is a troubling paradox at the heart of the idea that racism is so uniformly rejected as a national value that those who demonstrate it need locking up, and it is one that is part of a worrying British trend.

A few newspaper columnists have suggested that Stacey was harshly treated. But very few have claimed freedom of speech as their justification. Instead, they have quibbled with the punishment. The writer Musa Okwonga wondered in the Independent whether “a very stiff community penalty would suffice.” Perhaps, he recommended, “Stacey could have been made to work the type of hours in the type of places that refugees work. Then he might have understood better their daily burdens, which hatred like his only serves to increase.” Others, such as the Telegraph’s Tom Chivers, suggested that his punishment had already been served in the form of damage to his reputation. But nobody cited principle. Nobody channeled John Stuart Mill. This is a disgrace, for while the young man sitting in the cell is small fry, the liberty being compromised in his name is not.

Charles C. W. Cooke is an editorial associate at National Review.