To quote Francis Underwood from the Netflix series House of Cards, I loathe the necessity of sleep. During the early hours of the morning last week, for better or worse, I watched several snippets from Good Morning Britain. Two minutes into a debate on whether hate preacher Anjem Choudary should be released from prison, I became deeply alarmed at what I heard.
Choudary was jailed for “inviting support” for Islamic State. The show’s presenters, Piers Morgan and Susanna Reid, were arguing that Choudary should have been kept in prison because of his “dangerous ideas”. They went on to mention how he poisons young men’s minds, supports terrorists, and inspired the evil terrorist who murdered Lee Rigby.
These claims are all correct, and it goes without saying that I feel no sympathy for Isis, which is a vile, medieval organisation. Anjem Choudary, too, is a despicable extremist who espouses ideas that would make most of us recoil in horror.
These are reasons to outcast him and treat him with the disdain he deserves, they are not reasons to lock him up and strip away his freedoms, even if he is inviting support for an appalling organisation.
What really shocked me during the interview was when Piers Morgan asked the following question: “at what point does your love of all things freedom of speech, which I share in many regards – I’m a journalist who believes passionately in freedom of speech – but at what point do you say: ‘no sorry you do not do this on our soil, you do not whip up terrorism and promote terrorism and help terrorists, we are going to deport you and throw you out of this country’?”
Morgan as a presenter frequently argues against censorship and infantile campaigns – such as the one trying to tear down Nelson’s column in Trafalgar Square – yet this only makes his position on Choudary all the more contradictory. You cannot, in one breath, laud Winston Churchill for standing up for our freedoms during the war, and then argue that somebody should be jailed because their ideas are hateful and offensive to you.
Context is important. Last month, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that an Austrian woman accused of defaming the Prophet Muhammad was not protected by the right to freedom of expression. The court stated that she had committed “an abusive attack on the prophet of Islam which could stir up prejudice and threaten religious peace”. The fact that a Western court in 2018 ruled that freedom of speech was void because somebody’s discourse offended a religion was outrageous.
In January of this year, Cathy Newman asked the following question to Jordan Peterson during a Channel 4 interview: “why should your right to freedom of speech trump a trans person’s right not to be offended?” Peterson visibly, and quite understandably, looked amazed that an experienced journalist could have asked such an ignorant question.
This week, we learnt that individuals had been arrested for a “public order offence” as a result of them burning an effigy of Grenfell Tower. Apparently, it isn’t possible to demand justice for Grenfell and defend a free society at the same time. Indeed, the fact that making people deeply uncomfortable now constitutes a crime is chilling and shows just how authoritarian our laws have become.
If you truly believe in freedom of speech, you would never indulge those who would jail somebody for their discourse. There is a clear difference between offence and incitement to violence, but all too often they are conflated and confused. Terrorists may well have been inspired by hate preachers, but that does not mean that those preachers incited them directly. Though this distinction may seem over-scrupulous, our freedoms depend on such pedantry.
Anyone who writes negative comments about this article, for example, will certainly have chosen to risk offending me and many others – and that’s conducive towards healthy debate. But you simply cannot call yourself a defender of freedom of speech if you do not equally defend those with whom you profoundly disagree, and ideas that may seem indefensible. Whatever happened to “I detest what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”?
Brandenburg v. Ohio, a landmark judgement for freedom of speech by the US Supreme Court in 1969, draws conclusions that liberals must seek to cement into UK law. The court stated that the government does not have the right to punish speech unless it is “directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action”.
This is a sensible settlement and one that is backed up by America’s first amendment. The status quo in the UK, however, is far more complex and fickle, owing to our uncodified constitution, as opposed to the United States’ constitution which is not only codified but extremely difficult to amend.
The problem that we find ourselves in is that, across the West, our politicians have long been engaged in the erosion of our civil liberties, either in the pursuit of “security” or “religious peace”. They have queued up to tell us that “Je Suis Charlie”, yet after every terror attack they have chosen to undermine the very values and freedoms that underpin our civilisation.
Take the example of Theresa May when she was home secretary. The government was granted the right to censor university campuses and sanction mass surveillance with questionable degrees of judicial oversight. Is it any wonder that the government isn’t doing more to combat free speech infringements across universities when its own ministers are now able to engage in censorship from the corridors of Whitehall?
France, as another example, has a core concept in its constitution of laïcité, an article which enshrines secularism, but in doing so prevents religious items from being worn in public places and religion being taught at school, because those actions would offend the state.
This type of authoritarianism develops when the state has the power to control and punish citizens on the basis of what discourse it deems acceptable to society. And for those who care about the rights of the individual against the government, we cannot allow these developments to continue.
When people quote Churchill and talk about our victory in both world wars, perhaps they should remember what we were fighting for. Were we fighting for a state that could punish people on the basis of their thoughts, beliefs and discourse, or were we fighting precisely against that? The sad truth for fellow liberals is that while everybody loves their own human rights, others people’s are a bit more of a problem.
I, for example, am certain that I will offend all sorts of people by writing this article, but it is imperative that we learn to tolerate offensive and “hateful” speech again, however uncomfortable it may make us feel. It is crucial that the authoritarian tide that has swept our country in recent years is rolled back.
Otherwise, if today’s government has the power to lock up those whose ideas it deems “dangerous”, what’s to stop a future socialist government locking up those who believe in economic freedom, or a far-right government locking up those who believe in civil liberties? Where does it end?
Our human rights – including freedom of speech – were fought for by our ancestors and paid for in blood. They were not designed to make us feel at ease, they were designed to keep us free. Politicians across the West would do well to remember that.