I have found myself clashing with Alex Massie on his British Spectator blog on several occasions — in fact I express mild disagreement with him in my NRO column today — but he is spot on in this blog posting about the growing hostility to free speech in Britain.
A 19-year-old man, Azhar Ahmed, has been charged with “a racially aggravated public order offense” by West Yorkshire police for writing a blog denouncing British soldiers, and asking about their alleged victims, as follows: “People gassin about the deaths of soldiers! What about the innocent familys [sic] who have been brutally killed. The women who have been raped . . . etc., etc.”
The remarks expressed by Ahmed seem odious to me, and their expression crude and completely unpersuasive to anyone who doesn’t already share his outlook. But they are undoubtedly political speech, thus deserving of high protection. The only basis for thinking them racially or religiously aggravated is to infer such a bias from the writer’s name — which raises a suspicion of bias on the part of the police. And for the police to arrest him, as they have done, strikes me as plain abuse of authority. As Massie writes: “The United Kingdom is supposed to be a great bastion of liberal values. Freedom of speech is useless unless it’s extended to those with whom you disagree or even find disgusting. Why can’t the police and prosecuting authorities appreciate this?”
Three points should be added. First, as Massie doubtless knows, cases like this occur almost every day in Britain. More often than not the victims are such threats to order as a Christian soapbox orator critical of homosexuality, or a veteran graffiti artist who writes “England for the English” on a wall, or a café owner who displays the Bible in his café, or (in one famous case) a television company that broadcast an investigative program on inflammatory sermons delivered in local mosques and was threatened by a senior police officer with prosecution for arousing racist hatred. My own bias — namely, that the police have become the paramilitary wing of the Guardian newspaper — may be on display here; maybe there are more prosecutions of Azhar Ahmeds than I have noticed. But it really doesn’t matter, because free speech is the entitlement of all sides, and unless speakers and writers actually break the law, the main role of the police should be to protect them from attack.
Second, one almost never finds out what happened next, especially when the charge against the speaker is dropped and he goes free. Most people think that ends the matter. But why should the police escape censure of a more serious kind? If someone is wrongfully arrested for giving offense by his opinions — to whom? to Mr. Plod? — why should the police not be charged with wrongful arrest? If such a charge is proved, the consequences should maybe start with the arresting officer, but they should not end there. It would produce a highly desirable chilling effect if more senior officers faced some sort of public reprimand for encouraging such repressive attitudes. This should maybe go to the extent of ensuring that the major police academies teach a respect for free speech in their courses. The best way to achieve that would be for major newspapers — especially newspapers such as the Daily Mail and the Telegraph — to follow the story right through to the point where the offender(s), usually the police but sometimes the prosecution authorities and sometimes the Home Office (or, in the U.S., the Justice Department), have to make some amends for their abuse of authority.
I realize that many of my conservative friends will disapprove of this criticism of the police on whom we rely for our protection. But this is a criticism not of the police as such, but of particular police who overstep the mark and of those officials in and outside the force whose advice and encouragement have brought about this growing hostility to free speech.
And that leads me to my third and final point: This growing hostility to free speech is found both outside Britain and upwards from the policeman on the beat. Corner readers will be aware through the travails of Mark Steyn of Canada’s misnamed Human Rights Commissions, which are little more than engines of speech repression. In Australia, the highest court recently decided a free-speech case against journalist Andrew Bolt, essentially on the grounds that his writings offended certain ethnic groups — which they did, apparently, but not without reason on his part. Parties of the Left in both countries (which in Oz means the present government) support these judicial attacks on free speech in general. Parties of the Right in both countries are finally rousing themselves to come to the aid of free speech — late they come but still they come. And, of course, in the U.S. the Left, in particular the feminist Left, is girding for a battle to censor Rush Limbaugh and doubtless others in due course.
So let battle be joined. And as regards the Azhar Ahmed case, I would be happier giving $100 to the Mark Steyn liberation fund, but if Mr. Massie wants to pass the hat round for Mr. Ahmed, I will throw in a hesitant but principled fiver.
And for the police to arrest him looks like an outrageous abuse of authority. Does it rise to the level of wrongful arrest?