Another assault on free speech

November 11, 2014 • 10:01 pm

by Greg Mayer

The same day that Jerry wrote about the waning of free speech, Andrew Sullivan independently made the same points at the Dish, decrying a Tory (UK) proposal, already in their election platform, that would be “the most draconian crackdown on free speech since the press won its independence centuries ago.” In a move which he rightly describes as Orwellian, the proposal would create “Extremism Disruption Orders”, which would allow the government to silence speech it considers “extreme”. Once an order is placed against someone, they could not challenge the order on the basis of the facts, and once so ordered anything they wished to publish, either in print or online, would be required to be submitted to the police for approval prior to publication.

Originally intended to be used against Jihadist preachers, the proposal’s scope has been extended to include, among other things, criticisms of religion itself. Andrew writes

So this is how blasphemy laws get a comeback in a post-Christian country: all religions are now immune from any public criticism that could be regarded as “extremist”. And not just religions: also gay people, women and the disabled. And why end there? You can see the multiple, proliferating lines for government interference. If a gay man attacks Islam for being homophobic, he could be prosecuted. But ditto if a Muslim cleric denounces homosexuality. It’s win-win for government power to monitor and control public speech in all directions!

In fact, the proposed law is an invitation for an orgy of allegations of victimhood, for a million ways to define hatred, and for countless lawsuits which would be extremely hard for most people to defend against. I’m sure this blog could be liable in England under these terms if the government decides my questioning of the Matthew Shepard myth is hateful or my insistence on the Islamic factor in contemporary Jihadist terrorism is Islamophobic. And if this blog were in the UK, I’d be constantly worried that it could be shut down [emphasis added.]

Like Jerry, he notes the strange bedfellows such proposals make: elements of both the left and the right support such proposals to shut down speech they dislike, while critics who decry the waning of free speech also come from both the left and the right. Andrew, as most WEIT readers know, is a conservative, gay, Catholic, so on this issue both ends of the spectrum join to oppose these Orwellian attacks on free speech.

55 thoughts on “Another assault on free speech

        1. Since it would necessitate the creation of a whole new Office of Extremism Disruption Orders, requiring hundreds of staff and a budget of millions, no doubt the beaurocracy would love it.

            1. The Ministry for the Promotion of (Keep) Calm Virtuous Communication and Suppression of Vicious Communication.

              Headed by Winston Smith Blair

              Housed in the Orwell Office Building.

  1. The present UK government and the Labour government that preceded it have both displayed a very worrying tendency to seek to curb ancient democratic rights and freedoms in the name of ‘security’ in the face of terrorist threats.
    If we give up these rights to free speech and related rights then the terrorists and religious extremists have won.

      1. Yes. There is a great deal to admire about the United States and the achievements of its people. Unfortunately our politicians have a regrettable tendency to emulate some of the less admirable aspects of ‘the American way’.

  2. (From the link):

    “Once served with an EDO, you will be banned from publishing on the Internet, speaking in a public forum, or appearing on TV. To say something online, including just tweeting or posting on Facebook, you will need the permission of the police.”

    That makes it seem unworkable to me (as these ill-considered, knee-jerk laws often tend to be). Anyone who gets slapped with one of these could surely begin a subversive campaign of overwhelming the Police with requests for pointless Tweets or something.

    Request 1:”Just woke up. LOL”

    Request 2:”Just got out of bed. LOL”

    Request 3:”Just eating breakfast. LOL” etc

    You could send hundreds of requests each day and the Police would get sick of it and start putting pressure on the Government to change the law. That’s how it seems to me; although, I could be wrong. As I recall, the comedian Mark Thomas did a similar (successful) campaign.

    1. That makes it seem unworkable to me

      You’re being naively optimistic. Flooding the police with requests won’t cause them to stop enforcing the law. It will cause them to issue a single, general ruling that says “all post-EDO requests for public communication are summarily denied, unless you hear specifically from us that one is allowed.”

      1. A large part of the cost would be in processing requests for publication, not so much in communicating decisions back to applicants. The police could issue a blanket statement saying “Don’t publish until you hear from us”, but surely they would still have to, at the very least, look at every application sent to them – still a significant resource drain.

    2. Anyone who gets slapped with one of these could surely begin a subversive campaign of overwhelming the Police with requests for pointless Tweets or something.

      The tactic is as old as the hills and has several names such as “a white mutiny”.
      OK, maybe not as old as some hills. As old as these hills?

    1. Indeed. But who do we vote for ?
      The record of the Labour Party is no better and across mainstream British politics there seems to be a strong consensus that the criticising of religion (and Islam in particular) is an inflammatory and dangerous act. The Liberals, Greens and (unsurprisingly) the odious Respect party all sing the same tune on this.
      Such criticism as there is comes only from UKIP and on every other issue (climate change, gay rights etc) they talk complete rubbish.

      1. Criticising Islam is a dangerous act, because Muslim extremists are petty, sensitive little cunts with a dogma of violence whenever they feel their poxy delusion is not being given the respect it deserves.

        Which is exactly why we need to continue to criticise it. Because otherwise, their stated goal of worldwide sharia law, using whatever means necessary (including violence and murder) may become reality.

    2. That was my take for 20+ years, and the one time that I do* it all goes horribly wrong.

      * Lib Dem at the last election. Mainly because they support PR. As I live in a Labour stronghold they didn’t get in but still.

          1. Yes. We have had it in NZ for nearly 20 years now. Our old system was the same as UK. We got governments not voted for by the majority and parties with 15% getting no representation in parliament. There was a referendum and we voted for a voting type called MMP (mixed member proportional).Imo, it’s better and fairer.

      1. To be fair to the Lib Dems they do at least have Maajid Nawaz as a candidate. He seems to be genuinely liberal and has undeniably put himself at some personal risk by opposing Islamic extremism.
        I don’t think his views are common (or at least articulated) in the Lib Dem party and sadly, because of the Lib Dems’ failures in government, it seem most unlikley he will be elected.

    1. The article never set a foot wrong until perhaps this point:

      “I’m an extremist, especially on freedom of speech, which I don’t think should ever be limited.”

      Maybe that’s just hyperbole; but I’ve had (online) arguments against people who really think that free speech should never be limited – and they’re often willing to bite the bullet and deny what strike me as obviously necessary limitations – for instance, against defamation, false advertising, and criminal incitement.

      The best argument against these new proposed laws is not that free speech should be utterly inviolable. All we need is to admit that free speech is in general a good thing, and that an existing restriction (against criminal incitement) is already good enough and doesn’t need to be strengthened.

  3. Brings to mind the broadcasting ban introduced by Margaret Thatcher in order to deny Irish terrorists ‘the oxygen of publicity’. The way the law was framed, we weren’t allowed to hear the voices of terrorists. So broadcasters interviewed them anyway, with a voice-over actor saying their words in sync with their lips.

  4. Potentially disastrous, but I would just point out — this was announced at a speech at the party conference, a few months before a general election … this is about posturing to solidify your base, not something they actually expect to be able to implement.

    1. But the very idea that they think this will get votes is either:

      a) a scary indication of how the Conservatives believe the populace thinks, or
      b) a scary indication of how the populace actually thinks.

      I hate Cameron. The most slimy, dangerous and out-of-touch party leader we’ve had in years. It’s a travesty that this unelected idiot is running our country.

      Just yesterday Cameron, having been told by countless business leaders that immigration is good for the economy, blithely told the TV cameras, “I don’t agree with that.” It seems that being a politician magically makes you more of an expert on EVERYTHING than the actual experts.

      If I ever ran for public office my major pledges would be to base my policies on evidence not personal conjecture, and to admit when I was wrong.

  5. He uses as an example criticism of homosexuality vs. criticism of Islam. Homosexuality, like gender, race, ethnic background, etc. is an inherent part of a person while religion is acquired. Does the UK have laws against incitement to violence?

  6. Isn’t censorship usually the first act of extremism? If I find these laws to be hateful, they are certainly offensive to my British values, can we silence our government using the laws they put through to silence people they disagree with? Or is does it only work for them?

    1. Freedom of speech is the only way to guarantee all the other freedoms we cherish. Without freedom of speech, there’s no way to petition for redress of grievances, there’s no way to know where rights are being abridged.

      Yes, it is always the first step of a totalitarian regime (right after grabbing the military power).

      Look at North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Syria.

      Want to be like them?!

  7. Hmmm…Andrew sounds like complexity personified: “is a conservative, gay, Catholic,”

    The word needing definition is conservative. Internal inconsistency is a common human trait: “mental apartheid” has been used to describe it.

    I’m a determinist like Jerry, so obviously my speech is never *totally* free. 😉

  8. “Like Jerry, he notes the strange bedfellows such proposals make: elements of both the left and the right support such proposals to shut down speech they dislike, while critics who decry the waning of free speech also come from both the left and the right.”

    Not so strange. Liberals are not all good guys, conservatives are not all bad guys. It’s important NOT to categorize people by left/right liberal/conservative. There are plenty of poorly thought out positions on both sides, and there are thinking people on both sides if we just look past the label.

    Whether a person is ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ is much less important than what they are saying.

    On a subject like this, it is between the authoritarians (both left and right) and the libertarian side of both the left and right.

    1. I agree with your last point. On both right and left, you get people who think that if the population won’t behave properly, its best to make them do so. They simply differ on how they define “behave properly.”

      1. Another point is that, for those on the poles of political thought and lacking a persuasive argument, the only way to win the argument is shut your opponent up.

      2. I’ve had family members make such draconian claims before, but taking it further than speech. My brother has actually said people arrested for DUI should have their privilege to drive permanently suspended, never mind the fact that we won’t put an effective system in place to stop it. It is about control and controlling speech goes hand in hand with controlling actions. Add to that list abortions, birth control and recreational drug use, and we’ve got a good chunk of the Tea Party’s platform covered.

        1. Your brother’s proposal doesn’t sound that far out there – in fact, it’s a model that already applies. As I understand the situation that applies across Australia and presumably in the UK and the USA as well is that if you do something sufficiently bad as a motorist, your licence is suspended, and you can’t re-apply immediately: you must wait some period, which might be months or years depending on the circumstances. I don’t see why it would be unfeasible (although it may be unwise) for the state to extend this waiting period to ten years, or twenty, or fifty, so that you’re effectively banned from re-applying forever. And speaking for myself I see something attractive about this proposal. Anything that reduces the number of cars on the road can’t be all bad!

          (Declaration of interest: I don’t drive. This may be colouring my views somewhat.)

          Anyway, whether or not your brother’s suggestion is reasonable, it’s at worst a reasonable position taken too far. It’s not analogous to the freedom of speech case. If I genuinely, really and truly, abuse my freedom of speech in such a way that the courts have every right to punish me – by conducting a slander campaign, for instance – it’s not as though my right to talk will be or should be suspended, not even for a second. I can come straight out of the court, immediately after having been convicted, before I’ve even paid my fine or served my sentence or whatever it is, with exactly the same rights to shoot my mouth off as any other citizen.

          1. I think the analogy to this current speech proposal holds. It says that once a person is shut down, speaking or circulating your opinions in public requires police approval. That’s exactly what the proposal is to take away driving privileges for a person who gets a DUI; it attempts to control behavior, one in the case of sharing ideas, the other in restricting movement and thus making it harder to support oneself.

            Of course, I should have done a better job showing this through the lens of American mentality on mass transit. I’m with you, fewer cars on the road is better. I happen to be in one of the few places in America where I have to drive very little. I could even get by without a car altogether, though the option of walking or biking to my train is somewhat perilous since we don’t believe in making roads pedestrian safe for the most part.

            My point is that without some significant infrastructure upgrades, for the vast majority of Americans, revoking driving privileges is revoking a chance to live in the middle class. Let’s set a system up so that drunk driving (and driving in general) is reduced because it is more convenient not to drive. I will concede that viewed in its own context, a proposal to revoke driving privileges may not be extreme, but in the context of the right wing in America now, this type of mentality is combined with defunding Government agencies and mass transit is viewed as some kind of Communist plot (my brother doesn’t go that far, he actually works on road design and thus relies a good deal on Governments actually funding projects).

  9. Reminds me of the society depicted in the recent post-apocalyptic film “The Giver”, in which no one can say anything bad about anyone else, in order to prevent conflict from ever happening again.

  10. It amazes me that people on both ends of the political spectrum find censorship to be a wise plan. The immediate question is, “What happens if you are the minority one day and you are censored?” The argument can’t even get off the ground without simply failing to address this objection. Yet, here we are with speech being assaulted from all directions.

  11. I remember a Star Trek:Voyager episode about a peaceful society that had acheived that by banning bad thoughts. There was a black market in violent thought imagery. The most minor bad thought triggered a murder. The wonderful Tuvok went undercover and passed on the bad stuff he kept suppressed by his Vulcan will.

    It was seeking to control behaviour that was the real problem.

    1. That episode was the darkest we ever saw Tuvok go, I think. One of Voyager’s better episodes, especially early in the series.

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