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.

Reader Discussion

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on April 04, 2012 at 08:32:34 am

The British are no longer free men but slaves, eating, drinking, and now speaking only at their master's sufferance. Of course, Muslims are still welcome to incite genocide and bus-bombings. How very, very sad.

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Image of Buck Bradley
Buck Bradley
on April 04, 2012 at 08:44:27 am

What's more, I'll bet most Brits feel the two-month sentence was too light. What a sad state the once great England is in. But, the reality is that a vast majority of the British population, and Europe as well, is so hopelessly indoctrinated in Marxism that individual rights are completely unknown to them.

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Image of FrancisChalk
on April 04, 2012 at 08:48:13 am

Having just read Johnson's biography of Churchill, I know the man weeps, for his homeland has lost its way.

Is there no Churchill amongst them?

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Image of Tex Lovera
Tex Lovera
on April 04, 2012 at 08:53:04 am

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.

Explain, perhaps, but not justify; at least not for Mill (or any defender of free speech). Mill expressly denies that the fear of violence or liability of it might justify infringement of speech even in cases of instigation: "I hold that [instigation], in any specific case, may be a proper subject of punishment, but only if an overt act has followed, and at least a probably connection can be established between the act and the instigation" (OL, Ch2, par 1, fn 1).

Also, the possibility of offensive speech inciting violence against the target group is here conflated, dangerously, with granting a "rioter's veto" to insulted groups who might commit violence in response. That creates a very dangerous precedent with deeply perverse incentives -- which we can see at work already in Britain, as a matter of fact. (It's also not Millian.)

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Image of Daniel Jacobson
Daniel Jacobson
on April 04, 2012 at 09:16:21 am

The British are masters at turning their own language inside out.

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Image of grichens
on April 04, 2012 at 09:24:21 am

' He was intending to say what he said and was intending to produce the effect that he did.' What effect did the writer intend other than specific denigration of a black footballer? His crime seems to have been related to the infantile excesses of sport fan partisanship of the kind that had football banned in the 15th century, not to racial hatred per se. Does the law now equate a tweet into cyberspace as the same as standing outside a building addressing a mob with violent [as distinct from scatalogical] language? If the writer had tried to use his words to organize a mob riot, that would be very different. I hope this ruling can be quickly overturned, or free speech is indeed in danger in the UK and it is the star chamber courts who are the new oppressors. [Er, sorry, was that an illegal statement now?]

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Image of BJ
on April 04, 2012 at 09:42:31 am

The country needs to face down public disorder. As you say, the alternative is to turn into Lebanon, and we can see how that works out.

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Image of Stacy
on April 04, 2012 at 12:32:54 pm

Once upon a time Englishmen had rights...then the government took their guns away and enslaved them...

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Image of Rich Vail
Rich Vail
on April 04, 2012 at 12:34:01 pm

The pusillanimous hand-wringing of this article and its author is utterly enraging. A country, its people, and its way of life are dying for no good reason and the most you can muster up is "more's the pity"? No, if this is the best England has left to offer, it's not a pity at all. One can only hope the new owners of the island ethnically cleanse every remaining Briton, tear down every last stone erected by their forefathers, and start completely fresh. Could Conway offer anything more than an elaborate shrug of the shoulders at such a prospect? Doubtful.

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Image of PN
on April 04, 2012 at 13:27:55 pm

Who knew the Brits would turn into such wimps.

As far as Lebanon goes, if somebody tries to take my rights away, invade my country, make my women wear a burkha, etc, they are going to get far worse than Lebanon from me.

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Image of Harry
on April 04, 2012 at 15:54:29 pm

They don't really need to keep justifying the American Revolution, but they're givers.

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Image of McGehee
on April 04, 2012 at 16:30:55 pm

Good article.

I live in the UK and I have seen the gradual introduction of more and more speech laws.
You're right that the laws are there to keep the peace in our country; we have experienced mass immigration from all around the world and this has created a lot of resentment.

There is a feeling among many that the laws are not applied fairly eg. the indigenous British are targeted and treated more harshly in the courts.

The consensus seems to be that Liam Stacey has been treated more harshly for this reason too.
His case is being compared to the racist and violent attack by a gang of Muslims on a white woman. They were not sent to jail. The judge virtually excused their behaviour on the basis that they had been drinking and, as Muslims, they are not used to the effects of alcohol.

So it remains to be seen what the long term effects of these sort of judgements will be.

There has been a lot of sympathy for Liam Stacey, by the way. Not for his offensive language, but for the fact that he has been scapegoated. This was a minor offence, and the sentence was unprecedented.

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Image of Simon
on April 04, 2012 at 16:47:53 pm

Any discussion about Britain's future that does not draw upon the wants and needs of Muslims is moot at this point.
Barring a quick turn away from multiculturalism and relativism, Muslims will determine what Britain becomes, not the native British.
The same could be said of several European countries, with France at the forefront.

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Image of Steve
on April 04, 2012 at 17:44:50 pm

It is a profound shame that Great Britain and its people have denigrated themselves from sundry politically correct absurdities to a place where rude and asinine speech is accorded more judicial weight than violent crime.

On the other hand, all the nets in the world can be put under a bridge and still people jump. If they choose to die, then that is the choice they have made.

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Image of Roddy Boyd
Roddy Boyd
on April 04, 2012 at 21:46:43 pm

I really can't hold with the idea of ludicrous repercussions for people who merely think 'wrongly' in favor of mollifying the raucous hordes.

It's the same kind of logic that keeps women wearing burkhas in the Middle East - 'Oh, the attackers couldn't help themselves - the victim should have known better than to incite them!'

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Image of Revvy
on April 05, 2012 at 00:54:49 am

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.

I disagree with this premise. People have variable thresholds for violence in response to the same provocation. We expect that young people in a civilized society can control their sexual conduct, even when confronted with the most explicit tease. We do not excuse larceny if the purloined object exceeded some minimum level of desirability such that the thief could not possibly help himself.

Free citizens are expected to seek redress for actual injuries, hurt feelings or damaged reputations in manners that do not include losing self control. A person has little claim to being free, since if he cannot control control himself he will necessarily be controlled by others. If a person can be moved to violence by a base emotional appeal, he is merely a tool of the instigator and his liberty waxes and wanes with his emotions.

Free speech assumes, rightly in my opinion, that civilized men and women can control themselves, even if some idiot pushes their emotional buttons. People of ridiculously sensitive dispositions should not expect the state to protect them from name-calling.

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Image of z9z99
on April 05, 2012 at 07:53:44 am

I remain open-minded to the position that the 21 year old's words, which as "tweets" constitute a form of published or written comments, do indeed breach the laws on racially aggravated public disorder. I am not very sympathetic to his case.

I am however concerned at the uneven and perhaps selective manner in which such laws are upheld. 3 years ago my 76 year old father and myself were subjected to 90 minute sustained racist tirade whilst attending a public meeting. (We are both white anglo-saxon.) This abuse included repeated use of racial slurs and epthithets and threatening language.

We subsequently complained to the police and stated our belief that the individual concerned was in breach of the Public Order Act. Nothing was done. The person who subjected us to this abuse returned to further meetings at the same location, and it was reported to us that he eventually committed a racially aggravated assault.

I reflect that this assault might not have occurred had the police enforced the law on racially aggravated public disorder in defence of two white men.

The laws of this country have to apply equally to all people of all backgrounds.

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Image of Danny
on April 05, 2012 at 08:05:26 am

The scales are falling from peoples' eyes all around Europe...

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Image of Tim
on April 05, 2012 at 08:31:19 am

"I remember your classes at Middlesex very well" - a bit illiterate in my enthusiasm.

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William Palfreman

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.