Free Speech, a Vanishing Species in Britain?
Question: In which allegedly democratic nation is free speech all but annihilated? Answer: the United Kingdom. And almost every other so-called democratic nation, except the United States.
I know, I know. A lot of journalists worldwide regard every slammed door as yet another brutish filthy nail in the coffin of untrammeled expression. I don’t happen to be among them. But anyone who feels sanguine about the right to free expression around the globe should examine what has been happening recently.
Last week, for example, British Home Secretary Theresa May announced that something called Muslims Against Crusades would henceforth be declared—by May—a proscribed terrorist organization. (Its crime: members planned to burn poppies on Armistice Day, as they had done last year, while chanting “British soldiers, go to hell.”). Translated, this means that anyone signing up for membership in the outfit, or even wearing, say, a sweatshirt or a cap with the MAC logo on it, could be sentenced to 10 years in jail.
This is not good news, and here I’m not talking simply about the three or so Britain-based people who wish to embrace poppy-burning. Most Western countries seem to have an imperfect notion of what constitutes unfettered speech: Italy’s schizophrenic Constitution, for example, grants free speech to “all” its citizens—that’s in the first sentence—except, as it goes on to explain, those Italians who publish material “contrary to morality,” or which the government finds in some other way less than pleasing, in which case “suppression,” by a police raid if necessary, is perfectly fine. And even that meager right—i.e., the right to find your publication shredded by cops if the government finds your speech immoral or otherwise dangerous—is consigned, significantly, to the 21st article of the document. Countries that don’t put free speech first are countries that tend to believe free speech is as dangerous as … well … burning poppies.
Britain, however, goes one step further. It has an utterly “uncodified” (as Brits like to call it) constitution: this means there is no core constitutional document, but instead a lot of slips of paper fluttering about—British treaties, court judgments, and the like from which citizens, judges, and their representatives must draw certain legal conclusions, if they can manage it. It’s as though some teenager with minimal executive function left six months’ worth of unfinished homework lying about his bedroom, and you can imagine what happens to certain key provisions, paragraphs, and rights under such circumstances: lost in the shuffle.