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Saturday, May 26, 2012

Not so free speech

For Halsbury's Law Exchange

No sooner had HLE published a post on the joke (in every sense) trial of Paul Chambers than another story appears which leaves one wondering how many in officialdom have even heard of free speech, let alone understood it.


According to this report in the Independent newspaper:

A teenager will appear in court after allegedly making comments on Facebook about the deaths of six soldiers in Afghanistan last week, police said.

Azhar Ahmed, 19, according to West Yorkshire Police, posted the comments on his profile page and has been charged with a racially aggravated public order offence, according to West Yorkshire Police.

A police spokesman said Ahmed, of Fir Avenue, Ravensthorpe, West Yorkshire, was bemoaning the level of attention the British soldiers who died in a bomb blast last week received compared to Afghan civilians who have died in the war.

The offending post has been uploaded by Spectator blogger Alex Massie here.

Leaving aside Ahmed’s fairly shaky grasp of the English language, his post might reasonably be described as offensive. It certainly does not express views I would share, though as it happens I think our stay in Afghanistan has probably outlived its usefulness.

Yet none of that is of any relevance. Ahmed’s published views might properly be called offensive, but if free speech is to mean anything at all, it has to include the freedom to offend. In a democracy, the view of the majority rarely needs defending. The majority has the power to vote away anything with which it disagrees (or disagrees sufficiently for someone to organise a political campaign). It is the ability to offend the majority, challenge the powerful and contest the status quo which needs defending.

It is hard to think of which is worse – prosecuting Paul Chambers because he made a joke, or Azhar Ahmed because he made a statement about the war in Afghanistan. Without dissolving into clichĂ©, it might be observed that one of the key differences between our society and that of the Taliban is that the latter tends to execute anyone not on message politically or religiously. In Britain on the other hand free speech is one of the cornerstones of our society.

It is true that free speech has not always been as robustly defended in Britain as in the United States, but if it has come to prosecutions of inane facebook updates or tweets then we have reached the lowest point since the days of mediaeval persecution. (Incidentally our overworked criminal justice system will likely explode or implode as well.)

Of course there are limits to free speech – protecting intellectual property, or state secrets, or preventing harassment of another – but no sensible restrictions would include making jokes (which are painfully obviously jokes such as Chambers’) or remarks, offensive or otherwise, about the rights and wrongs of the actions of soldiers or the war in Afghanistan.

Extraordinarily basic introduction to free speech over. All that has been offered by way of explanation by the police (quoted by Alex Massie in the article linked above) is that Ahmed:

“... didn’t make his point very well and that is why he has landed himself in bother.”

Assuming the quote not to be severely out of context, it does not deserve a response. Instead I would direct the spokesperson to Art 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, and the history in this country of Lollardism, the Reformation, Milton, JS Mill and much else besides. Alternatively, they could just recall the following quote attributed to Stephen Fry:

“So you’re offended. So f+++ing what?”

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