Thursday, February 12, 2009

Philip Johnston: UK Abandons Freedom of Speech

From The Telegraph:
The arrest and possible prosecution of Rowan Laxton, a Foreign Office diplomat, for railing at the Israeli invasion of Gaza from his exercise bike in the gym, is the latest example of an equally sinister development – the denunciation of opinions expressed in private, as with Carol Thatcher's "golliwog" comments. Free speech is about understanding that some people hold a different view from you, whether you like it or not. When we start to alert the "authorities" to thought crimes we really are one step away from the dystopian world that Orwell invented as a warning, not a prophecy.

The Government that has treated our liberties in such a cavalier way is having none of this, of course. David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, said the film made by Wilders was "full of hate" and therefore fell foul of British laws, though he admitted that he had not seen it and therefore could not judge. But, in any case, is he right? Is it against the law?

People have always been free under the criminal law to speak their minds, provided they did not, in doing so, incite others to commit violence or infringe public order. Rabble-rousers trying to whip up the mob have never been the beneficiaries of this latitude: there is, in other words, a difference between license and liberty. However, it is necessary to demonstrate that the words complained of are likely to stir up hatred and public disorder, not merely to complain that they are unpleasant or objectionable to some. Imams have been allowed to continue preaching in mosques when it could be argued that they have overstepped this mark, as when they have called for the death of homosexuals or Jews.

Wilders is no advertisement for free speech. After all, he wants the Koran to be banned. But that is not the point. It is what this affair says about us, not him, that matters. Is Britain now adopting a position where people who support suicide bombers and jihad are able to make known their opinions without legal challenge, whereas those who oppose them cannot?

The very people who in 1989 were demanding the murder of Salman Rushdie for writing a book are today leading the charge against a Dutch MP for making a film. The fundamental difference is that 20 years ago, the government supported free speech; today, it has cravenly surrendered. It is simply not good enough to say that Wilders should not be heard because he might provoke a backlash from those who do not like him or his views. That is not upholding the law. That is appeasement.