Book Review – Feel Free To Say It, Threats to Freedom of Speech in Britain Today. By Phillip Johnston
It was very timely to receive this book and read it over the recent Christmas / New Year holiday period. It is timely because, as this blog has recently documented, we have recently seen arrests of people, at the possible instigation of some quite questionable, Islamic groups, for criticising either Islam, Islamic organisations or Muslim individuals. There appears to be a concerted effort by Islamic groups to try to shut down often quite valid criticism of Islamic beliefs, practices, morals and politics, and they are being aided and abetted in this aim by the ‘hate speech’ legislation created during the Labour party administration of 1997-2010.
This slim, 83 page volume, by Phillip Johnston, the former Daily Telegraph Chief Political Correspondent, is packed with facts about the origin of British free speech culture, the necessary legislative changes that had to be made to prohibit incitement to violence in the form of the 1936 Public Order Act, and also the current threats to free speech that exist, including that from Islamists and their supporters.
For those unfamiliar with some of the great British characters who despite being ‘distinctly unpleasant characters’ like John Wilkes MP, who,in the 18th century helped to bring into being the Britons right to speak according to their concscience, this book will be a pleasant education for you. For those who do not know, John Wilkes was the man who when told by the Earl of Sandwich that Wilkes would die ‘either on the Gallows or of the Pox’ replied, ‘that would depend on whether I embrace your principles or your mistress.’
The book contains various case studies of incidents where a Briton’s right to free speech has been curtailed and how this has occurred and what legislation has been used to silence our hard won right to speak up, without fear of arrest or harassment. Included in the case studies is one example of how ‘hate speech’ laws have become completely ridiculous and unjust in how they are used. The case in particular relates to a New Zealand woman who was called a ‘fat Australian bitch’ during an argument with another person. Because the person with whom the Kiwi woman was arguing with, used the word ‘Australian’, it then became a ‘racial’ crime. How ridiculous is that? ‘Fat bitch’ was unactionable, but ‘fat Australian bitch’ was a criminal offence.
This book speaks of the wide ranging powers that the authorities now have to curtail speech where ‘offence’ has been taken by someone, even those not directly physically present when the ‘offence’ has been given, as was evidenced by the Emma West case. Although quite rightly the word ‘insult’ was removed from section 5 of the 1986 Public Order Act, that doesn’t mean that there are not other legislation and other ways and means for the thin skinned to bully people with. The Suzanne Moore ‘Brazilian transsexual’ furore is covered in this book to show how well organised lobby groups, who are sometimes very small in number but loud in voice and quick to take offence, can even make newspapers remove articles that they do not like. That sort of censorship by legal and other threat is really not good for any society that wants to regard itself as healthy.
This book makes the very valid point that other countries have had some form of ‘hate speech’ laws for longer than the UK. However these were either introduced to cover nation specific issues such as Holocaust denial in countries occupied by the Nazis between 1933 and 1945, or were like the United States of America, where the First Amendment to the Constitution acted as a counterweight to ‘hate speech’ laws. In Britain we not only have no nation specific reason to shut down free speech like those above but frighteningly we have no constitutional right to free speech to counterbalance those who may have a vested interest in using ‘hate speech’ legislation for the purposes of diverting attention away from their ideology. ‘hate speech’ laws also provide a valuable weapon for those who just wish to bully people into not criticising or judging their particular lifestyle. The right to free speech is a cornerstone of democracy, which is something that the amenders of the US Constitution recognised, if we in Britain lose our right to criticise that which deserves criticism, then we will have lost not only this generations voice but we will have silenced the voices of the generations to come.
Mr Johnstone is correct that there needs to be a wholesale review of a system of laws that has impinged on free speech and also that the protections for free speech that Parliament has put in place need to be emphasised during this review. In my view, it maybe painful in the short run but beneficial for the health of the country in the long run to abandon hate speech legislation because it has not only muddied the waters regards free speech but it has also resulted in an inconsistency of what can be said to whom and by whom. We must no longer tolerate a situation where a Muslim preacher can stand up in a pulpit and threaten the lives of Jews and Gays for example whilst a person pointing out why this is a load of old pony, can find themselves in the cells.
Maybe for the sake of the future of Britain we do need to return to a free speech environment where I have a right to swing my fist around but my right to do so stops at the end of your nose. By which I mean people should be allowed to say whatever they want, but directly and provably inciting violence should remain a criminal offence. Such a policy would not only deal with those who for example incite arson of property but also those Islamic preachers who incite violence against the many catagories of individual and ideology that Islam has as ‘hate figures’.
I would certainly advise people who are interested in the subject of free speech to read this book, despite its size it’s packed with information, some disturbing and some useful.
Feel Free To Say It, Threats to Freedom of Speech in Britain Today
Author Philip Johnston
The Institute for the Study of Civil Society (Civitas)
53 Tufton Street
London SW1P 3QL
Price £5.00 and available from Amazon.