In the past few weeks alone, police in England and Wales have announced that they are set to record misogyny as a hate crime, a cartoon image of Prophet Mohammed shown at a school led to the suspension of a teacher (who now fears for his life), an Oxford student has been investigated for racism for singing along to a rap song, and the Archbishop of Canterbury has warned that “cancel culture” now threatens the future of the Church.
And yet, the debate still roars on in Britain as to whether or not we’re in the midst of a free speech crisis.
Half of Britons believe that freedom of speech is “under threat” here in the UK.
Today, far-left identitarians maintain that Britain’s “free speech crisis” is a myth, fabricated by conservatives to justify their intolerance under the guise of liberty.
But, a recent poll showed that a staggering half of Britons believe that freedom of speech is “under threat” here in the UK. Have that many citizens really fallen for an alt-right trap...or is there something more unsettling going on?
Hate Speech Laws in the UK
In the UK, “everyone has the right to freedom of expression,” according to Article 10 of the Human Rights Act 1998. But, the Act also states that this freedom “may be subject to formalities, conditions, restrictions, or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society.”
There is a panoply of restrictions impeding British citizens’ right to freedom of speech.
In reality, there is a panoply of restrictions impeding British citizens’ right to freedom of speech. Various laws have created categories of “speech crimes” for offensive but otherwise benign political speech. For example, hate speech is outlawed here — that is, when someone uses “threatening, abusive, or insulting words or behavior that causes, or is likely to cause, another person harassment, harm, or distress.”
Other statutes that impinge on our freedom of speech include the Public Order Act 1986, Communications Act 2003, Section 127 and Malicious Communications Act 1988, Section 1 and Terrorism Act 2000 and 2006.
For example, the Public Order Act 1986 criminalizes offensive speech. Section 1(1)(a) and (b) of the Act criminalize the use of “abusive” words “within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm, or distress thereby.” Section 5 even outlawed “insulting words” before the term “insulting” was removed after a public campaign in 2013 (but, despite the campaign, the word “insulting” still appears in various speech crimes elsewhere within the Public Order Act).
These statutes depend ultimately on whether someone feels they have been a victim of hate speech.
What’s more, Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 criminalizes “sending a message via a public electronic communications network that is considered grossly offensive, or of an indecent, obscene, or menacing character,” as well as false information that may cause someone “annoyance, inconvenience, or needless anxiety." The Communications Act is used to justify the arrest of over 3,000 people every year (that’s nine per day) for their “grossly offensive” social media content.
Relying on ominously vague terms like “abusive,” “menacing,” and “obscene,” these statutes depend ultimately on whether someone feels like they’ve been a victim of hate speech.
Is Being Offensive an Offense?
Thanks to these hate speech laws, being offensive can be treated as a criminal offense in the UK. For instance, in 2018, YouTuber Mark Meechan was notoriously fined £800 for a “grossly offensive” YouTube clip of him training his girlfriend’s pug to respond to the phrase “Sieg Heil” by lifting a paw in a Nazi salute. After refusing to pay the fine and instead donating £800 to a local Children’s Hospital Charity, in March 2019 the government seized the money from Meechan’s bank account.
Police in the UK posing beside a poster claiming that “Being offensive is an offence.” (Image source: Merseyside Police)
And what about in 2017, when a 17-year-old girl with Asperger’s syndrome, Chelsea Russell, quoted a line from a song on her Instagram which contained a racial slur? Chelsea was posting a tribute to a 13-year-old friend who had died in a car crash, but the lyric was considered “grossly offensive” by the police, and she was convicted of a hate crime. In April 2018, Chelsea was found guilty, sentenced to an 8-week, 8am-to-8pm curfew, fitted with an ankle tag, and ordered to pay a £500 fine plus an £85 “victim surcharge.” (Thankfully, Chelsea’s case was eventually overturned, but she still had to go through the humiliating, public, and fundamentally totalitarian ordeal).
Thanks to hate speech laws, being offensive can be treated as a criminal offense in the UK.
And then there’s Simon Ledger, who was arrested on racism charges after drunkenly singing “Kung Fu Fighting” at a beach bar in the Isle of Wight. "We were performing Kung Fu Fighting, as we do during all our sets," he told The Sun newspaper. “People of all races were loving it. Chinese people have never been offended by it before.” Ledger told The Sun that an Asian man had walked past with his mother, swore at them, and after making an obscene hand gesture, took a photo on his phone. Ledger claims he and the other performers hadn’t even seen him when they first started singing. The Asian man informed the police that he’d been “subjected to racial abuse.”
There’s also the case of British student Liam Stacey, who was sentenced to 56 days in prison after posting racist comments on Twitter while drunk. After posting the comments, Stacey was met with a torrent of online abuse, receiving comments such as “I hope he gets raped by a black man in prison.” Yet, these comments apparently didn’t count as incitement to hatred under our subjective laws.
The Free Speech Problem on Campus
The erosion of free speech is particularly acute in British universities. Unorthodox voices on campus are routinely silenced and no-platformed, with students themselves now being suspended and banned from university institutions for expressing their opinions. For example, just a week ago a young woman was suspended from her student union for uttering the phrase “Rule Britannia” in an online meeting, which was interpreted as “discriminatory or racist language.”
Nearly 40% of students feel too scared to express their views on campus.
Students have also been suspended from their course for their views. For example, Julia Rynkiewicz, a midwifery student, faced suspension and a ban from her hospital placement after Nottingham University discovered her involvement in a pro-life student group.
According to a nation-wide poll by ADF International, nearly 40% of students feel too scared to express their views on campus, terrified it will negatively affect their future career opportunities.
In 2018, Spiked magazine launched their Free Speech University Rankings 2018, “an annual nationwide analysis of campus censorship, examining the policies and actions of 115 universities and students unions.” They found that 54% of institutions “actively censor speech by banning certain views from being expressed on campus and/or ban specific texts, speakers, and groups from campus on the basis of their content/views.” For example, 46% of the institutions in the study banned transphobia on campus, restricted discussions around transgenderism, and urged/required students to use transgender pronouns.
Freedom of speech is the scaffolding that sustains democracies, and without it, so much of what we’ve become accustomed to will collapse.
What’s more, students who try to set up their own free-speech unions, publications, or events often face censorship. For instance, in 2015, a student free-speech magazine was set up at Oxford University and later banned from the freshers’ fair.
Disturbingly, however, many UK students actually demand more restrictions on language, with under half supporting freedom of speech.
After a recent poll of 16-24 year olds revealed that 28% of UK students had never heard of Stalin, almost half had never heard of Lenin, and 70% had no idea who Mao Tse Tung was, it seems to me that many students just don’t know the significance of what it is they’re so readily sacrificing.
History bears testimony to the horrors that follow the decay of free speech. Younger generations have to be made aware of the dangers that come with surrendering this principle, even if hate speech laws currently work in their political favor. Freedom of speech is the scaffolding that sustains democracies, and without it, so much of what we’ve become accustomed to will collapse.
Britons must find the moral courage to stand up against further restrictions on our speech, especially in our universities, where the free exchange of ideas should thrive. We can’t allow our societies to be structured around the ever-changing needs of the easily offended, our legislation to be crafted for the coddled and overindulged, and our language to be monitored by those with the most power.
Every day our freedom of speech is corroded further and further in the UK, nauseatingly justified under the masquerade of progressivism. When will we realize it’s gone too far, and say enough is enough? Perhaps we’ll only know when it’s too late.
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