Every now and again, you have to remind yourself of the wonder of the First Amendment. Given the deep human urge to silence those with whom we disagree, it’s proven indispensable to protecting wild, open and robust debate against the micro-managers of the Social Justice Warriors on the left and the Jihadist-extremism monitors on the right. And if you doubt its value, just take a look over the pond, where the Tory party is proposing the most draconian crackdown on free speech since the press won its independence centuries ago.
As usual, you have the Orwellian terminology, and in this case it’s something called an “Extremism Disruption Order.” A more accurate term would be a “Government Censorship Order” – for that is exactly what this betrayal of British values truly is:
The home secretary’s manifesto plan to silence extremists by banning their access to the web and television is cast far wider than the Islamist “preachers of hate” of tabloid headlines. As David Cameron pointed out, the Conservatives now want to look at the “full spectrum of extremism” and not just the “hard end” of that spectrum that counter-terrorism policy has focused on up to now. The difference is spelled out in the detail of the policy, where it says that it is intended to catch not just those who “spread or incite hatred” on grounds of gender, race or religion but also those who undertake “harmful activities” for the “purpose of overthrowing democracy”.
Or to put it more plainly: the government has an obligation to censor dangerous ideas because they might hurt someone’s feelings:
George Osborne, the Chancellor, has made clear in a letter to constituents that the aim of the orders would be to “eliminate extremism in all its forms” and that they would be used to curtail the activities of those who “spread hate but do not break laws”.
He explained that that the new orders, which will be in the Conservative election manifesto, would extend to any activities that “justify hatred” against people on the grounds of religion, sexual orientation, gender or disability.
He also disclosed that anyone seeking to challenge such an order would have to go the High Court, appealing on a point of law rather than fact.
So this is how blasphemy laws get a comeback in a post-Christian country: all religions are now immune from any public criticism that could be regarded as “extremist”. And not just religions: also gay people, women and the disabled. And why end there? You can see the multiple, proliferating lines for government interference. If a gay man attacks Islam for being homophobic, he could be prosecuted. But ditto if a Muslim cleric denounces homosexuality. It’s win-win for government power to monitor and control public speech in all directions!
In fact, the proposed law is an invitation for an orgy of allegations of victimhood, for a million ways to define hatred, and for countless lawsuits which would be extremely hard for most people to defend against. I’m sure this blog could be liable in England under these terms – if the government decides my questioning of the Matthew Shepard myth is hateful or my insistence on the Islamic factor in contemporary Jihadist terrorism is Islamophobic. And if this blog were in the UK, I’d be constantly worried that it could be shut down:
Once served with an EDO, you will be banned from publishing on the Internet, speaking in a public forum, or appearing on TV. To say something online, including just tweeting or posting on Facebook, you will need the permission of the police. There will be a “requirement to submit to the police in advance any proposed publication on the web, social media or print.” That is, you will effectively need a licence from the state to speak, to publish, even to tweet, just as writers and poets did in the 1600s before the licensing of the press was swept away and modern, enlightened Britain was born (or so we thought).
You won’t even be able to tweet once the government has found out your views are noxious to some aggrieved group or individual. The goal, of course, is laudable – as laudable as hate crimes laws in intent: the creation of a society where impure thoughts are forbidden and thereby less likely to affect or influence others. And all this to advance what the Tories call the “British values” of tolerance, good faith and moderation.
But notice one British value that falls by the wayside. That value is freedom of speech. In our many concessions in the fight to monitor and control Islamist extremism and terror, that one should remain inviolable.