National Security & Defense

In Britain, Free Speech Goes Out with a Whimper

(Photo Illustration: NRO)

‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.”

Or so we were told as children. Of late, alas, this maxim has come under sustained fire, as the conflation of physical violence and verbal criticism has become de rigueur. Hate-speech laws, which are now ten a penny outside of the United States, rely heavily on the preposterous presumption that opprobrium and disdain are equal in severity to battery and bloodshed, and that the state is capable of sensitively superintending their use. Once, it was accepted as a staple of the Enlightenment that any government that attempted to closely supervise speech was destined for disaster, if not for tyranny. Now, even the home of John Stuart Mill has slid backwards into the mire. In Britain each year, as across Europe, tens of thousands of people are investigated by the police for nothing more than being awful in public. And the voters applaud like seals.

By way of sobering example, take the news that an E-list British celebrity named Ursula Presgrave was this week found guilty in London of “malicious communication.” Her crimes? To have written on Facebook that “anyone born with down [sic] syndrome should be put down” before they are subjected to the “pointless life of a vegetable,” and to have saved onto her smartphone a series of memes that mocked the disabled. When asked by prosecutors whether she accepted that she had committed a crime, Presgrave confirmed her liability without so much as a fight. Within the month she will be sentenced, and, depending on the judge’s mood, required to spend half a year in prison or to pay a £5,000 fine. Another hammer has been used to crack another nut.

By prosecuting Presgrave for what amounts to nothing more than thoughtcrime, Britain has erred badly.

That a putatively free person so readily accepted the prospect of being jailed for holding ugly opinions should provide some insight into the contemporary state of intellectual liberty in Britain. Presgrave is without doubt a fool, and her views are morally repugnant. But that is the business neither of Her Majesty’s government nor of those under who operate beneath its carapace. There were no threats made here; there was no imminent danger or incitement to law-breaking; no conspiracies were uncovered. Instead, a person of below-average intellect and questionable ethical calibration issued an abstract opinion that both the majority and the chattering classes found abhorrent. In a country whose people are at liberty, this cannot be a crime. To the contrary: Toleration of precisely this sort of culturally egregious expression is what distinguishes free nations from tyrannies. By prosecuting Presgrave for what amounts to nothing more than thoughtcrime, Britain has erred badly.

#share#Bad as they are in and of themselves, the charges leveled against Presgrave are rendered all the more grievous when one observes that the opinion for which she was disciplined is both culturally normal and legally protected in Britain. Under that country’s laws, mothers who are expecting children with Down’s syndrome and other disabilities are permitted to abort right up to the moment of birth — months after the statutory limitation on termination have kicked in elsewhere. There is no reasonable way to comprehend this legal distinction other than as a reflection of the belief that disabled children are often better off dead — the very contention, in other words, that landed Presgrave in court. Judging by its behavior, we have no choice but to conclude that the British government considers not only that words can hurt as much as sticks and stones, but that they can hurt more. Under the current rules, the doctor who kills an unborn child a week before his due date is worthy of praise and legal immunity, while the minor celebrity who exalts the use of euthanasia a few days later in the cycle is deserving of incarceration. How’s that for a rabbit hole?

To read of a free-speech outrage in England is invariably to read of a group of vexed civilians willfully “shopping” to the authorities somebody they dislike.

When lambasting the state’s inexorable temptation toward suppression, it is typical to cast the censors as the villains and the people at large as their innocent victims. In a dictatorship or a monarchy or when the government is at a remove, this habit makes perfect sense. But in Britain, a representative democracy, it does not. As the Daily Mirror confirms, Presgrave’s arrest came after a number of her fellow citizens lodged formal complaints with the police. It is a regrettable fact that to read of a free-speech outrage in England in 2015 is invariably to read of a group of vexed civilians willfully “shopping” to the authorities somebody they dislike. Nobody, it seems, is safe from the informants: not celebrities, not journalists, not university administrators, not drunken social-media users, not faithful Muslims, not unfaithful atheistsnobody. If you step out of line, somebody, somewhere will call the cops. Is there nobody left in Britain who will hang up with a chuckle?

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