Politics & Policy

British Freedom of Speech Endangered

John Stuart Mill, where art thou?

In Britain, the trend toward the curbing of free expression picked up speed on Monday, when British student Liam Stacey was sentenced to 56 days in prison for posting racist comments on Twitter. When Premier League footballer Fabrice Muamba had a heart attack during a soccer game and was rushed to hospital, a drunk Stacey took to the microblogging site and spewed a series of racially abhorrent tweets into the ether. Other Twitter users — including sports pundit and former top-flight footballer Stan Collymore — quickly noticed his words and reported Stacey to the police, who arrested him and charged him with incitement to racial hatred a few days later.

When Muamba collapsed, said the judge at Stacey’s trial, “not just the footballer’s family, not just the footballing world but the whole world were literally praying for his life. Your comments aggravated this situation.” In fact, it is hard to see how Stacey’s words aggravated anything much at all. What he wrote, utterly appalling and unprintable as it was, had bearing neither on the efficacy of Muamba’s life-saving treatment nor on the likelihood of his survival. It prevented nobody from praying for his life or exercising any of their own rights. And it encouraged nobody to do anything illegal. Sure, what Stacey wrote may have — should have — upset many people. But in a free country, that cannot be a crime.

Explaining his decision to imprison Stacey, the judge noted that he had “no choice but to impose an immediate custodial sentence to reflect the public outrage at what [Stacey had] done.” “To reflect the public outrage”? Translation: British speech law is determined by the sentiments of the mob. That this is the case would constitute a tragedy anywhere that free men live, but it is especially egregious in the land of John Stuart Mill. In On Liberty, Mill averred that “if all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.” His words carried no small print, nor did his associated contention that “there ought to exist the fullest liberty of professing and discussing, as a matter of ethical conviction, any doctrine, however immoral it might be considered.”

It is hard to fathom why exactly Stacey was singled out. It is a sad fact of modern life that people say racist and abhorrent things on social networks and public message boards all the time — YouTube’s comments section, particularly, is a sewer — and yet most go untouched. Given that a popular Twitter reaction to Stacey’s imprisonment on Monday was “I hope he gets raped by a black man in prison” — and there were other, even less charming, variants — one can but ask why such subsequent comments do not constitute as much of an incitement to racial hatred — to violence, perhaps — as the original, and why they are not worthy of the same punishment. If an eye for an eye makes the world blind, an insult for an insult would have seen thousands locked up in British jails this week if the law had been applied consistently.

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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.

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