Freedom of Speech Wanes in Britain

When last month during an FA Cup quarter-final, the 23 year old Zaire-born former under-21 England international footballer, Fabrice Muamba, collapsed after a heart attack, a palpable wave of sympathy broke out for him among supporters of both teams at the north London stadium where the match was being played.

Unfortunately, that wave of sympathy did not extend to one inebriated 21 year old British biology undergraduate who had been following the match. He promptly tweeted a disgusting and highly abusive comment about the incident, followed by still more disgusting responses to those who tweeted to him in protest at what he had written.

His original tweet ran: ‘LOL [Laugh out loud) **** Muamba, He’s dead!’

His follow-ups included such vile comments as:

You are a silly c***! Your mothers a w*g and your dad is a rapist!’ ‘Go suck a n****r d*** you f****** aids ridden c**t. go suck muamba’s dead black d**k then you aids ridden t**t’; ‘go rape a dog!

For making those comments, the young man was swiftly given a two-month prison sentence, upheld on appeal last week.

At his original trial, he had pleaded guilty to ‘racially aggravated public disorder’ by ‘inciting racial hatred’ through posting his comments. In upholding his sentence, the presiding magistrate at the appeal justified it by saying of the man that:

 He was intending to say what he said and was intending to produce the effect that he did.

For two reasons, the young man’s custodial sentence seems disproportionate to the gravity of his offense.

First, however foul and deeply racist and offensive his comments undoubtedly were, they would seem on the surface of a kind less calculated to stir up any racial hatred than to express it. There seems to be no evidence they incited anyone to racial hatred, although they did much rightly to incite antagonism towards him for having made them.

Second, convicted offenders in Britain these days are routinely given suspended prison sentences for what seem much more severe offenses. For example, last November a 44 year old woman received a 12 month suspended prison sentence, after admitting biting her boyfriend’s scrotum during a row which led to his needing 19 stitches.

Looking at Britain from across the Pond at some of the public order offenses for which people there these days are regularly being tried and given custodial sentences, some American commentators have begun to deplore Britain’s abandonment of free speech. A case in point is Charles Cooke, editorial associate at the National Review. Commenting there about the original prison sentence given to Muamba’s verbal abuser, Cooke writes (link no longer available):

This 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 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.”

Cooke may well be correct in claiming that what Muamba’s verbal abuser deserved was ‘opprobrium, not jail time’.

However, he was not correct when he claimed that Mill attached no caveats to his apparent unqualified support for free speech and discussion. Mill did attach one. What that caveat was helps to explain, if not necessarily entirely to justify, why, for the past several decades, Britain has been imposing increasing restrictions on what its inhabitants may publicly say or write.

At the beginning of the chapter in his famous essay On Liberty that follows that ‘Of the Liberty of Thought and Discussion’ from which Cooke took his quotation from Mill, the great Victorian classical liberal thinker went on to claim that there was one circumstance in which it which it was entirely justified that people be prosecuted for opinions they had expressed. He wrote:

 Even opinions lose their immunity, when the circumstances in which they are expressed are such as to constitute their expression a positive instigation to some mischievous act.

As instances of opinions from which immunity could rightfully be withdrawn according to the circumstances of their expression, Mill cited those that corn-dealers are starvers of the poor and that private property is robbery. Of them Mill wrote that:

[They] ought to be unmolested when simply circulated through the press, but may justly incur punishment when delivered orally to an excited mob assembled before the house of a corn dealer, or when handed about among the same mob in the form of a placard.

The circumstances in which an opinion is expressed, therefore, alters, for Mill, the moral legitimacy of its expression. If expressed when it is liable to incite riot or civil disorder, then, even for Mill, its expression might justifiably be prosecuted.

If we are to follow Mill, therefore, it is not enough grounds to condemn as inappropriate the prison sentence handed down to Muamba’s verbal abuser that it should ever have been issued. Rather, what we must consider is whether, in the circumstances in which his comments were made, they were liable to have incited anyone to violence.

That fact helps explains, and possibly justify, why, in recent years, ever greater restrictions on freedom of expression have been introduced in Britain. They have been out of concern that, unless promptly prosecuted, public expression of remarks like those of Muamba’s verbal abuser would be likely to incite riot and civil disorder, whether on the part of those sympathize with them or, as is more likely, those about whom they are made.

In other words, governments of both major parties in Britain have felt constrained to introduce increasing curbs on freedom of expression, precisely because of the country’s ever-increasing social fragility, attendant upon its steadily growing diversity.

One might argue that Britain should never have allowed itself to become as diverse as it did, following the Second World War, through mass immigration. Given, however, that it did do, the increasing curbs on freedom of expression there have arguably been the price it has had to pay to preserve public order.

The authorities must be seen at all times to be clamping down hard on whites who make abusive remarks about the country’s black and Asian minorities. They must do, as much to mollify the latter and restrain them from rioting as to prevent any white extremists there from being incited by them to go out on the rampage against these minorities.

You might argue that instead Britain would have done better to face down all public disorder than relinquish any part of its traditional freedom of expression.

You might possibly be right. But the real tragedy behind the imprisonment of the deeply misguided young man who verbally abused the black footballer is not that he should have been imprisoned for what he wrote. Rather it is that his country has come to such a pass that he has become liable for prosecution for making the foul and ill-judged remarks that he did that, had Britain not become as diverse as it now is, would have just been met with bemused embarrassment by virtually everyone.

But the country has, and so now is seemingly stuck with such legislation as has led to his prosecution. Despite its equivalent diversity, the situation in America is far different. For, given its history, and especially the length of time its inhabitants have lived with the First Amendment, they have seemingly had time to develop much thicker skins than those in Britain.

Maybe in time, Britain’s population will. Until then, it seems, they are all going to have to live with the kind of legislation that impedes the growth of one. In such tragic circumstances, the final word must go to Mill.

In his late essay on Representative Government, Mill observed that:

Free institutions are next to impossible in a country made up of different nationalities. Among a people without fellow-feeling… [e]ach fears more injury to itself from the other nationalities, than from the common arbiter, the State. Their mutual antipathies are generally much stronger than [their] jealousy of government.

Too true, sadly.

If part of the price of freedom is eternal vigilance, another is surely a degree of national cohesion upon which such a degree of diversity as that present in Britain today inevitably places great strain.

For the present, the country manages to preserve a fragile modus vivendi among its constituent ethnicities by its authorities coming down heavily on any of the white majority who publicly make any adverse comments against any of its minorities.

Whether that strategy will work after it no longer has a white majority, only multiple minorities, is anyone’s guess.

My guess is that, by the time that day comes, and it is fast approaching, so different a country will Britain have become that to invoke the name of Mill there, or that of any other of its historic champions of liberty, will seem to its populace as anachronistic as invoking those of Jesus and Jehovah are increasingly becoming there today. More’s the pity, but true nonetheless.