I am writing out of sheer frustration with this tediously platitudinous article on the Conservative Way Forward website written by Mark Spencer MP in a vacuous attempt to garner support for clamping down on freedom of expression.
It is the very height of numbskullery; full of hackneyed phrases and vapid arguments. He pays lip service to freedom of speech being one of our most important values but asks, ‘does that mean that we can let people incite violent and even murderous behaviour?’ No, Mr. Spencer it does not, and it never has.
Freedom of speech does not mean freedom of incitement; you will find no suggestion that it does from me or any other advocate of this most precious of liberties. Nor any in the theories of Milton, Hume, Locke, Paine or Mill, those great men, those giants of our culture, who championed the philosophical foundations of English liberty that lesser men now seek to destroy.
Most importantly, this flimsy point doesn’t help support his argument. The crime of incitement arose in the Common Law centuries before he was born and is now covered by three statutory offences contained within the Serious Crimes Act 2007.
It is patently obvious that if someone incites others to commit violence ‘and even murderous behaviour’ they should be arrested and charged accordingly. This non-argument is not only hollow, it oozes insincerity.
The real motive is to argue for the government to be given yet more powers to decide what is, and is not, an acceptable opinion, empowering them to duly silence those who hold such opinions.
Mark Spencer does not want to give extremists the ‘freedom to spread their message of hate’ and endorses EDOs because he wants to prevent people, particularly the ‘vulnerable’, being exposed to ‘dangerous and inflammatory messages’.
Many people will agree with him. I must now ask them: who do you deem worthy of deciding on your behalf what opinions should be expressed? In whom do you place absolute trust to decide on your behalf what opinions you are, and are not, allowed to hear? Who is to decide what constitutes a ‘hateful view?’
My personal opinion is that no-one is qualified to decide in advance what is permissible for me or anyone else to say, no-one is worthy of that trust; that is why I believe in freedom of speech.
The right of others to freedom of expression is inseparable from my own. For when they are silenced I am deprived of my own right to hear their opinion by a presumptuous and unauthorised arbiter.
Are we to entrust this dairy farmer with such power? This is a man who thinks that Extremism Disruption Orders should be used against teachers who hold ‘old-fashioned’ views about gay marriage and express this to pupils. Thereby illustrating just how rapidly EDOs will go beyond their remit and be abused.
Welcome to our brave new world of absolutism, where a view that dissents from the current orthodoxy of the ruling class is deemed “extreme” and worthy of censorship, arrest, perhaps even imprisonment.
Who can say where the limit will be once the state decides what opinions are acceptable for us to hear? Indeed, if teachers can be targeted for their “extreme” views, why can’t parents be targeted with EDOs? That’s right, silence the parents! Then remove their children and re-house them with state approved parents with state approved opinions.
Mr. Spencer sought to reassure his constituent that EDOs will not serve to limit freedom of expression, ‘but rather to guarantee it: it is those who seek to stop other people expressing their beliefs who will be targeted.’ Guaranteeing freedom of expression with censorship. The maddening circular reasoning never ends, make it stop!
As for the idea of EDOs being ‘targeted’, are people really this naïve?
All of the powers that the state has acquired to fight terrorism in the last 15 years were meant to be “targeted”, yet such empty assurances didn’t prevent them being used to clamp down on freedom of speech, assembly and protest with astonishing rapidity.
Like the raid of Brian Haw’s one man protest against the Iraq war, or the arrest of Maya Evans for reading out the names of British soldiers killed in Iraq at the Cenotaph. Or the arrest of Steve Jago in 2006 for standing outside Downing Street holding a placard that read ‘in times of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act’. He was charged and had his copy of Vanity Fair confiscated as ‘politically motivated material’ because it contained an article entitled ‘Blair’s big brother legacy’, oh the irony.
What about John Catt, arrested for wearing an ‘offensive t-shirt’ calling Tony Blair and George W. Bush war criminals, or the arrest of Charlotte Dennis for her t-shirt that read ‘bollocks to Blair’, or Tony Wright who was arrested a year later for selling that same t-shirt at the Royal Norfolk Show.
Give them an inch… and they’ll arrest you because they don’t like your t-shirt.
EDOs will make Ministers and specifically the Home Secretary the judge of what opinions are extreme and should be banned. Even if you could trust the current government and the police, which you cannot, Parliament can never know how a future government will choose to interpret the laws it passes.
This is why strict constitutional restrictions on state power are so essential; we feel secure now but circumstances change, and measures such as EDOs provide a precedent for the destruction of freedom of speech and the total abolition of liberty.
Mark Spencer MP informs us that the ‘world we live in today is a fast-changing one’ as if this in itself was an argument for anything. It used similarly to phrases such as, ‘it’s the 21st century!’ to press on us that the world is so very different now and we must “get real” and accept that, as Tony Blair said, ‘the rules of the game are changing’.
It is the language of the unprincipled. It the language of the cowardly enabler. Our politicians are allowing terrorism to achieve its primary objective. They instil fear in us so that they can destroy civil liberties and thrash around exposing themselves, and us, as hypocritical, valueless and capable of violence and tyranny. In the end, we cower in the face of the threat and become the losers in this battle.
As for the ‘young and vulnerable’ people that Mark Spencer is so concerned about, we fail them too by curbing freedom of expression. Islamists assert that we are cowards and hypocrites with loose ethics and values, and we are proving that they are right.
Like so many young people, they seek certainties, an identity, and something to be a part of that they can feel pride in. This is especially true of certain demographics that are confused about their heritage and struggle to find themselves in a place in which their families do not have deep roots.
Do we offer them that when we quiver like jelly on a plate and choose to censor people rather than defeat them in open exchange of ideas? When we feel too timid to assert our own pride in our national identity, and to assert our own values?
No one in our government even seems willing to assert what British values actually are. Real, distinct British values are those that were created and nurtured here. Equality before the law, habeas corpus, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, the presumption of innocence and the right to a fair and open trial by jury, to name a few of the most precious.
They have all been violated in the fight against terrorism. Young men and women tempted by Islamism will look at British culture and see that all that was once solid is melting into air, no wonder this inspires their contempt.
Sorry Mr. Spencer, I will not be moved. I have been called a “free speech absolutist” as an insult, but I wear this as a badge of honour. I am committed to freedom of expression as a non-negotiable principle.
Freedom of expression is the essential freedom. Without this liberty, all other liberties are impossible. I am an absolutist on this one principle, because when this freedom is conserved, all other absolutism is untenable.
There is a reason every tyranny; from absolutist monarchs, to Communist and Fascist dictators and Islamic theocratic regimes, repress freedom of expression. It’s because it only takes one individual to say that the emperor has no clothes, then everyone can see he is naked.
Freedom of expression is utterly meaningless unless it means the freedom of those who think differently, because our own liberty is immediately precarious if we fail to protect even our enemies from censorship and oppression. By endorsing silencing others you will have no defence when they come to silence you.