Free Speech Watch: Gagging in Britain
May 17, 2009
The lights are going out all over Europe. One by one, European countries are devising more ways of restricting freedom of speech.
Earlier this month, Britain banned sixteen controversial people from entering the United Kingdom. Besides those seemingly falling into the “terrorist” category, there are some Christian and Muslim preachers and activists, and conservative American talk show host Michael Savage.
The newspaper The Independent reported on Home Secretary Jacqui Smith’s reasons for this entry ban. "If people have so clearly overstepped the mark in terms of the way not just that they are talking but the sort of attitudes that they are expressing to the extent that we think that this is likely to cause or have the potential to cause violence or inter-community tension in this country, then actually I think the right thing is not to let them into the country in the first place. Not to open the stable door then try to close it later," Ms Smith said.
Protecting your society from tension? Afraid that your society can’t handle some disagreement? This is not liberalism. This is tyranny.
This British politician is obviously ignorant of the very purpose of protecting free speech. The value of free speech lies precisely in arousing social tension – the sort of tension that makes people think and maybe act.
Linking speech with violence is the censor’s tactic, because the public might trade freedom for safety. All dictators know that ideas and speech can cause unwanted violence. That is why all dictators gag free speech, and get away with it, after they have made the people afraid. As Stalin observed, “Ideas are more powerful than guns. We would not let our enemies have guns, why should we let them have ideas.”
Fundamentalist Islam also criminalizes all criticism of the Faith, explaining that God’s true society must be protected from unbelievers.
In America, we criminalize the actual violence, not the idea. We don’t try to control thoughts, but we punish for harming others. A free society has citizens able to control both their own minds and their own conduct. A tyrannical society tries to control citizens’ conduct by controlling their minds. A society that treats the mind as an enemy is evil. The good society earns the confidence of every free mind.
A democracy confirms its strength by permitting free speech. A tyranny confirms its weakness by gagging free speech.
Congratulation, Britain. Not only are you making ideas into enemies, you have echoed Stalin and confirmed fundamentalist Islam’s logic of repression.
#1 PaulJ on Sunday May 17, 2009 at 11:47am
British politicians, it seems, have unfortunately never had to think about what actually constitutes a free society. Britain today is the legacy of monarchistic rule (which still survives, though one wonders what would happen if the Queen ever withheld Royal Assent from Parliament). Nobody ever had to sit down and write a constitution like America’s founding fathers did, so the structure of our society is to some extent taken for granted. Which is a state of affairs that could indeed lead us into the tyranny you talk about, more’s the pity.
#2 Benjamin Radford on Monday May 18, 2009 at 4:26pm
Excellent points… When we look to the Continent and our British brothers as models (say, for health care or secularism), we need to remember their other legacy of backing down when their freedoms are threatened,
#3 David R. Koepsell on Friday May 22, 2009 at 8:46am
let’s not tar ALL of Europe… Britain only narrowly defeated a Blasphemy law recently as well… PC is definitely in there these days.
#4 MichaelS (Guest) on Monday June 01, 2009 at 11:17am
I just have to say that the piece and the comments lead me to just one response - isn’t it amazing how we secularists are just as likely as the pious to engage in sanctimonious, holier than thou, self righteous drivel?
Yes, Britain is different from the US. It doesn’t have a constitution because it’s social structure evolved over about 1500 years. It produced all those grand ideas that got enshrined in the US constitution - where they are constantly reinterpreted as social mores change. But that doesn’t mean that the British are any less attached to those freedoms that they invented. The US is actually far more likely to forbid entry to foreigners whose ideas and speech would be tolerated and protected if they were citizens.
In the end, the biggest difference between Britain and the US is that here in the US, issues are more likely to be seen as black and white, or all or none. Perhaps that is the drawback of a written constitution - it can make nuanced approaches difficult.
Hey! I might think about banning Michael Savage from here if I could. Not because his ideas make me uncomfortable but because he enjoys making mischief by denigrating and demonizing what he doesn’t like; he isn’t interested in debate. And today’s news shows where that can lead only too easily.
And by the way, what has this got to do with health care? Is that a sort of ad hominem argument applied to a whole country?
#5 Nairb on Friday June 05, 2009 at 6:09pm
It sounds exagerated to think all the lights are going outin europe. The laws and histories are very different in each.
Freedom in France is defined differeny to US. In france freedom is defined as having a limit when it encroaches another persons freedom. This difference has allowed a slightly different approach. For this and political reasons Holocaust denial is punishable offense here.
Generally I agree gagging free spech is a dubious idea. In the UK many people are unhappy with their governmennts stance.