Friday, April 2, 2010

Is There Free Speech in the U.K.?

Philip Pullman at an event plugging his new book, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, delivers a solid, and rousing, defense of the right to freedom of speech. I wonder what Pullman thinks of this case in Scotland, where a preacher was arrested and fined for speaking about his religious convictions regarding homosexuals (that they are going to hell.) While I find the preacher's views slightly offensive, and truthfully, rather silly, I don't like the idea of arresting people for voicing their opinions. I am fairly certain Mr. Pullman is in my corner on that one. Once down that road, there is no end to it. It seems quite odd that the country that germinated the idea of the rights of man, including free speech, should now be denying it to those within its borders.


Vincent said...

You are quite right to ask the question, Patrick. The point needs to be discussed.

However, I don’t think the arrest of the preacher is a particularly good starting point. There is a widespread view in these islands that American evangelists are pests on the street, luring the vulnerable into becoming their followers and doubtless getting commission on each convert, like any salesman. Fortunately they are easily detected and one can cross to the other side of the street when one sees earnest young men in dark suits and white shirts, hunting in pairs. So I don’t think it was just a set-up by gay campaigners, but a set-up against an unwelcome invasion. We don’t mind being told we’re going to hell by our own street-preachers.

However, there is a law against something or other, I’m not sure what, that covers antisemitism, racism, homophobia, cripple-haters and such like. I’m sure many people think this law makes it an offence to say “homosexual”, “Jew” (preceded by any adjective you like) or “cripple” under any circumstances. The police are certainly not clear about it and there is a worrying tendency to arrest on any complaint and then (to cover their own backs) to submit the victim of the complaint to five hours questioning at a police station. It always seems to be five hours – perhaps there’s a law about that too.

Naturally we only get to hear about absurdities. Reporters in the old days would be assigned to attend every court, and every infringement on any issue would have its column in the local paper, ensuring that justice was seen to be done. Then we would see a balance, and that 99 out of 100 cases brought to law were sensible, perhaps.

On the bright side, the UK Government is very good at forestalling conflict and helping ensure peace and tolerance. On the flip-side, the government of Tony Blair and his successor Brown is seeking to solve every problem and smooth out every wrinkle in the way of a citizen from the cradle to the grave. The logical conclusion would be that you could sue the government for everything that goes wrong in your life because it should have made provision to prevent it. As a result, everything said and done is defensive, and thereby tedious. In principle it’s more work for lawyers as in the States but over here we haven’t caught up with that.

The real dangers to free speech here are more subtle. (1) People’s are ignorant as to what you are allowed to say or do in the sensitive areas, so they are careful & don’t say what they think, when it is critical of other groups. This is refreshing in a way & I have adopted it myself. If you say how you hate the Pakistanis spitting in the street (which does bother me, as I live in a street populated mostly by Pakistanis) someone else may say something exaggerated and vicious about the same people, for you have opened the floodgates of ill-feeling. It is better to keep quiet or say things in a round-about way.

In summary, the British (which of course includes Pakistanis who have been here for fifty years and have British descendants) are perfectly able to look after our own freedom of speech. If some new batch of evangelists from Salt Lake City, or wherever, comes over and starts upsetting people in the street, they soon discover how our sense of tolerance works, and learn to fit in.

Philip Pullman uses his free speech effectively yet carefully. There is a tendency for atheists to be slightly more offensive than the Christians they pick on, but still, everyone likes to see this Punch and Judy show, and cheer their own side.

PatricktheRogue said...

I understand and agree with your characterization of how polite people SHOULD act. I believe all people should treat others with respect and state complaints or issues with great care when dealing with sensitive subjects.

Where we might have a different approach is what should be ENFORCED by the government. The famous case in America occurred in the late 70's when the ACLU defended the right of the Ku Klux Klan to march down the streets of Chicago, proclaiming white supremacy and racial separation. Now, the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) is a firmly liberal and left-of-center organization, and vehemently disagreed with the Klan's entire philosophy, but they defended, in court, the Klan's right to express their offensive views. That is, to my mind, freedom of speech; the freedom to speak one's mind, no matter how offensive it may be to those in earshot. That is basically how the first amnedment to the U.S. Constitution is interpreted these days, as affirming the right to freedom of expression in a broad, blanket manner without regard to the acceptability of the opinions expressed.

Vincent said...

Then there is certainly less free speech in the UK. The preaching or stirring up of hate, as it is seen, is treated as a great danger by the government, which regularly refuses entry to visiting foreign politicians, academics or ministers of some religion when they may have been invited by a group or university to speak.

Categories of person who may have free speech denied are holocaust deniers, Islam denouncers, anyone with extreme views on racial differences etc.

We do have a traditional marching problem as you'll undoubtedly know, in Northern Ireland, where the tacitly acknowledged point of the marching season is to offend Protestants or Catholics whose territory you may be marching through. Technically, Northern Ireland is part of the UK. But it seems alien to those of us inhabiting Great Britain (the name for the island east of Ireland).

If you lived down my street for some time, I think you would understand that getting along with your neighbours is more important than free speech. In short, it comes down to self-preservation. But on that topic, even, it is clear there are different views, based on history. In US, the right to bear arms is considered the best guarantee of self-preservation. In UK, the opposite is the case.

PatricktheRogue said...

It's interesting that you include "Islam denouncers" in your list of those who may be denied free speech, when one of the most effective Islam denouncers I know of is Richard Dawkins, the well-known British scientist and atheistic polemicist.
I guess I am having trouble understanding this then. Because I must admit my hostility to most forms of religion, especially Islam, which features many aspects that are both ridiculous and cruel. Should I not be allowed to state that I think it horrific that the "Prophet" took a nine year old child as wife? Can I not decry the Islamic tendency to target for assassination those who leave their faith, or those who insufficiently respect it (such as the Danish cartoonist who depicted Mohammed in a cartoon and now must fear for his life)? I am simply curious, and must here agree with Philip Pullman that people should not have the right to live their lives without being offended, Muslims and gays included - that is the whole point of living in a modern, pluralistic society. See, we might have to agree to disagree, but I will never deny your right to say that which I disagree with.

Vincent said...

I am not endorsing the policy of not allowing Islam denouncers to enter the country - just reporting!

There is a Dutch politician, he may even be a Government minister there, who was invited to speak here (probably at a university) about his views on Islam, which are strongly condemnatory, perhaps along the lines you mention and more besides.

It was "judged" (not in a court I think, but in the Home Office) that his purpose in coming to this country was to stir up hatred and he was denied entry.

So you would have freedom of speech here to express your views, so long as it was not your purpose to express hatred, or perhaps so long as you were careful to avoid stirring up hatred. I'm not a lawyer, and I don't know the law.

It was here that Salman Rushdie, a British citizen, had to go in hiding for a long time against the Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa. As I said before, most people are now very pragmatic and put personal safety before principle.

must go - plane to catch.