Charlie Cooke has been doing yeoman’s work keeping Corner readers informed (and probably infuriated) about the growing number of cases in Britain of people who have been cautioned by the police, arrested, charged, and sometimes convicted of saying or writing something deemed by coppers to be racist, anti-gay, or politically incorrect in one way or another. It sometimes seems that the police are never too busy to investigate a Christian soapbox orator for quouting Deuteronomy but always too busy to chase a burglar or mugger before he gets too far away.
The cases that threaten to choke off free speech are the most serious. Charlie cited the case of Liam Stacey who has been sentenced by a district court to 56 days in prison for tweeting racist and insulting remarks about a footballer on a team he disliked who had suffered cardiac arrest and collapsed during a match. Stacey’s remarks were indeed racist, insulting, and generally odious. But they nowhere came close to meeting the traditional tests of fighting words or incitement to violence needed to justify censorship or prosecution. They could hardly have been either, since he was lying on a sofa at the time taking part in the virtual experience of tweeting.
These traditional tests have been replaced by completely illiberal laws — rooted in a co-called “culture of offense,” i.e., you are breaking the law if what you say offends me — that are quite draconian if they are also allegedly “religiously or racially aggravated.” These laws also reflect the Left’s success in getting its silly psycho-social nostrums imported into the law and, not less seriously, into the vacant minds of policemen and judges. So some people reported Stacey to the cops; others replied to him in repellent, racist and insulting kind; whereupon the cops arrested and charged Stacey but thus far have apparently not tracked down his critics.
All this is very worrying on several grounds.
First, these draconian laws are now enforced very widely. Conservative MP Dominic Raab discovered that section five [the section banning "insulting" behaviour in the Public Order Act] was used 18,249 times in 2009. Less than one in six of these offences had a religious or racial element, the majority were for the non-specified crime of insult. But they reflect a massive police crackdown on speech.
Second, they are enforced selectively — in part because potential offenses are so numerous that they cannot all be discovered, let alone prosecuted; in part because the police and the courts have swallowed whole a multiculturalists theory of offense that criminalizes some opinions more than others — for instance, anti-gay slurs are considered much worse than anti-Christian ones. I quote from a Guardian article by Mike Harris of Index on Censorship:
“One example is Harry Hammond, a 69-year-old evangelist street preacher. Hammond believed homosexuality was a sin and wanted everyone to know this. So he stood in the streets of Brighton proselytising against homosexuality with a sign proclaiming the catchy slogan: “Jesus Gives Peace, Jesus is Alive, Stop Immorality, Stop Homosexuality, Stop Lesbianism, Jesus is Lord.” Instead of ignoring an old bigoted man, a crowd gathered. At one point he fell to the ground in a tussle “over his placard, and soil and water were thrown over him. While Hammond was charged under section five, no one in the crowd was charged for assaulting him. He was fined £300 by a magistrate and ordered to pay costs of £395. The court also ordered the forfeiture of his sign. He died shortly after his conviction. Gay rights activist Peter Tatchell described Hammond’s prosecution as “an outrageous assault on civil liberties”.
Full marks to Mr. Tatchell — with whom I generally disagree but who has shown an admirable consistency on free speech. See Mr. Harris’s full article here:
In Stacey’s case Twitter has been full of tweets hoping that he will be raped in prison by Black prisoners — tweets that are vilely malicious towards Stacey but equally vile as stereotypical and racially aggravated insults towards Black English people. Little seems to have been done about them, however.
And that is the third problem with the culture of offense. Once unpleasant opinions or expressions are prohibited legally, then an assumption is created and spread that those guilty of them should enjoy no rights and no respect at all. Not only can any insult be hurled at them with impunity (which actually is fine by a First Amendment absolutist like me) but also no one can defend their right of free speech without being suspected of sharing their vile or controversial opinion. Prohibiting the giving of offense thus leads, paradoxically, to an increase in it. And this fear of being called a bigot or a racist is so strong in respectable metropolitian society that very few MPs, journalists, or other opinion-makers (actually, opinion-takers in the great majority of cases) will defend free speech when it is used to say highly controversial things.
What is needed is a strong campaign by newspapers — which, after all, have an economic and professional interest in this — to defeat the “culture of offense” and restore the traditional understanding and standing of free speech in British society. If the judge in the court that is hearing Stacey’s appeal later this week were so minded, he might spark off a revolution. Let the judge offer a firm rebuke from the bench for the kid for his vileness and stupidity while reducing his sentence sharply; a slightly stronger rebuke for the lower court judge for imposing a plainly excessive sentence; a much firmer rebuke to the police for wasting the court’s time; and the strongest possible rebuke to Parliament for passing laws that are either unenforceable or that can only be enforced arbitrarily and selectively.
We are unlikely to get all that or even half of it. But if there were to be more public protests about this kind of creeping authoritarianism, the judge might be emboldened to move a little in that direction. I think that would elicit surprising public support. When I was growing up, there was no more frequent line either spoken around the dinner table or used as the clinching riposte in a pub row than, “It’s a free country, isn’t it?” Increasingly Britain isn’t a free country. People feel it. And they resent it.