More abrogation of free speech in Britain

February 18, 2023 • 11:00 am

This tweet is worth posting on its own because it shows how draconian the UK speech laws have become.  Mr. Goddard (who may be the same as “Patrick Basedman”) may indeed be a homophobe, and I’m sure I’d disagree with whatever criticisms of the LGBTQ community (or rainbow flags) he made. But that’s not the point. The point is that this SHOULD be free speech, as it is in the US. But in the UK it’s enough to get you a letter from the coppers asking for a nonvoluntary “voluntary” meeting, and perhaps some kind of police record. If you don’t go to a “voluntary meeting”, you could be prosecuted.

Here’s the original tweet with a letter from the police, and, below that, a slightly shortened version of the video that got Godard in trouble.

Here’s an enlargement of the letter that Goddard got (click it to enlarge it more). Note how intimidating it is, headed by a “Crime Report Reference”, a claim that this could be a violation of the law (more on that below), a demand to arrange a “voluntary” interview (isn’t that an oxymoron?), and a threat of prosecution if the voluntary interview is missed.

Note that no individual was targeted, but “the LGBTQ community.” It turns out that, at least according to the Wikipedia article on “Hate speech laws in the UK,” speech like this could be against the law:

Hate speech laws in England and Wales are found in several statutes. Expressions of hatred toward someone on account of that person’s colour, race, sex, disability, nationality (including citizenship), ethnic or national origin, religion, gender reassignment, or sexual orientation is forbidden. Any communication which is threatening or abusive, and is intended to harass, alarm, or distress someone is forbidden. The penalties for hate speech include fines, imprisonment, or both.

The Police and CPS have formulated a definition of hate crimes and hate incidents, with hate speech forming a subset of these. Something is a hate incident if the victim or anyone else think it was motivated by hostility or prejudice based on: disability, race, religion, gender identity or sexual orientation. A hate incident becomes a hate crime if it crosses the boundary of criminality.

Some United Kingdom statutes apply in Scotland and Northern Ireland. The Scottish government has held an independent review of hate crime laws which it intends to use as the basis for a wider consultation on new legislation.

In the US, “hate speech” is legal but not so for “threatening or abusive communication intended to harass, alarm, or distress someone.” This makes sense, for nearly every form of speech (including pro-civil-rights speech in the Jim Crow South) can be seen as “hateful” to someone. The students who objected to the depiction of Muhammad’s face in an art class at Hamline University did so because they claimed it was an expression of Islamophobia, though it surely wasn’t motivated by that.  On the other hand, threatening or harassing someone is a personal attack (though calling them a name one time is probably not). It seems that the U.S. has got it right here but the UK has it wrong. The letter above shows the subjectivity of “hate speech” laws, and how they can be used to intimidate people into silence if they express unpopular opinions.

Here’s section 127 of the 2003 Malicious Communications Act with which Goddard was threatened:

The video doesn’t seem to have been meant to menace or intimidate an individual, though of course some people may consider the message itself “grossly offensive” (part 1). It’s the “grossly offensive” bit, combined with the “electronic communications network,” which of course includes email, Twitter, Facebook, and so on, that makes so many people susceptible to intimidation like the letter above.

“Hate speech” laws are a losing proposition, for what is “hate” depends on who interprets it and which political group controls the government. Best not to have them.

h/t: Luana

15 thoughts on “More abrogation of free speech in Britain

  1. It’s worth noting that the Communications Act (2003) dates from before social media (Facebook was 2004, Twitter 2006). Thus the Act was only ever intended to be about in-person communications, such as telephoning someone, because that’s all there was then.

    Parliament never intended the use to which the police are now putting this Act. Receiving an abusive telephone call really is very different from encountering content on the internet.

    1. That’s just not true. The internet before social media conglomerated into a few platforms was a rich ecosystem of forums, blogs (and blog comments), instant messaging, and personal websites that could be used to slander someone.

  2. Sadly indeed, the police in Britain have been, for some time, far more interested in monitoring speech online deemed “unacceptable” than in bringing to justice the hundreds upon hundreds of predatory men ( almost all Muslim of Pakistani ancestry) who have, for decades, preyed on and abused thousands upon thousands of vulnerable English girls (all very young, many from troubled backgrounds, and mostly working-class). Anyone who doubts the enormity, the horror, and the scale of this problem should watch, on YouTube, “Grooming Gangs: Britain’s Shame”, posted a few days ago.

  3. Hard to know whether to agree or disagree as the tweeted video seems to have been edited. All you can see is pride flags with a voiceover saying ‘Welcome to the home of English football’ x2 then ‘where the fly…’. I didn’t hear the word ‘nonce’, which does have a meaning which could be offensive depending on context.

    As far as US vs UK free speech constraints in general are concerned I’m not sure I would agree that the US does have it right compared to the UK, considering how difficult it seems to be to charge Trump with incitement in respect of the Jan 2021 attack on the Capitol.

    1. How many Prime Ministers have been indicted for speech crimes? If so, then you can say that Britain has got it right more than the U.S. And, you know, Trump may be indicted in Georgia.

      I gather that someone saying “nonce” in a video is someone you think should be arrested because of “offense”. The point, which you seem to have missed, is that using language like that, unless you’re accusing someone to their face of being a sex offender, should not be illegal.

      1. I don’t know of any UK prime ministers who have been indicted for speech crimes. My point was just that if someone in the UK in a position comparable to Trump in the USA in Jan 2021 said and did what Trump said and did in Jan 2021 my understanding is that legal sanctions would be easier to impose on him/her than they seem to be on Trump. But I could be wrong.

        The point about ‘nonce’ was just that because I didn’t hear it in the video then I didn’t know the context and therefore didn’t know whether it was addressed to a specific individual. Your point in your last sentence is one I would broadly agree with, except perhaps in extreme cases, and/or on consideration of their actual or potential consequences. For example I would find it hard to sympathise with a view that Hitler’s utterances against Jewish people in general rather than specific Jewish people should be considered legitimate free speech just because they weren’t uttered against specific individuals.

    2. I didn’t hear the word ‘nonce’, which does have a meaning which could be offensive depending on context.

      So? Are you claiming the right not to be offended?

  4. “. Any communication which is … intended to harass, alarm, or distress someone is forbidden.” Inasmuch as all satire undoubtedly distresses someone, the forbidden literature necessarily includes Aldous Huxley, Orwell, Swift, Dickens, and Shakespeare. Forthright expression on controversial subjects also distresses some, so there goes Milton. To ensure safety from the menace of “distress”, English literature will have to be replaced entirely by soothing mush and Diversity Statements. [Or else by postmodern word-salad, distressing only if you try to figure out what it means. Could that be the actual intent of this stuff—i.e., what Pluckrose and Lindsay call Applied Postmodernism?]

  5. You have to be authoritarian to even consider joining the police, eager to boss people around & tell them what to do. It seems British police are too busy harassing women & pursuing petty points like this to solve real crimes.

    PC Plod’s email is in the letter… perhaps people should tell him what they think.

  6. I suspect that there would be no prosecution if the ‘voluntary’ interview was declined because a court case would be open to criticism in the press if it was seen as too heavy handed. Alternatively agree to the ‘voluntary’ interview as long as it could be filmed and a legal representative present.

    I am not a supporter of the ‘hate speech’ concept for it leaves the speaker wide open to anybody with a grudge saying they were harmed or offended. It is suppression of free speech by the back door.

  7. Why would you want to silence the voice of the jurisdiction in giving legal advice!?

    Hate speech laws are fairly common in democracies and they work well, regulated by law. Remember that the human right of free speech has to be balanced by e.g. rights to security of person. I wouldn’t worry about it.

    If they have any effect is not known however, so i wouldn’t worry about their absence either. But I note that statistics tell us US is a fairly troubled society.

    1. Hate Speech laws have very little to do with hate speech and actively silence political heresies. They work well in destroying dissent.

Leave a Reply