Free speech should be for everyone, not just for The Rich

1984

Last week, there was a court ruling of huge significance for freedom of speech in the UK.

Harry Miller (a former policeman) had retweeted a limerick and some other tweets about trans-gender issues.  The tweets were perfectly legal but were seen by someone (Mrs B) who decided to take offence and call the police as if she were a KGB informant in the Soviet Union or we lived in George Orwell’s 1984.

Bizarrely, The Police did not ignore Mrs B (does the B stand for Batshit-Crazy??) and get on with investigating some actual crimes but instead logged it as a non-crime “hate incident”.

The police then tried to intimidate Harry Miller into silence, phoning him at home saying they wanted to “check his thinking”. They “advised” him to stop tweeting and later showed up to his workplace (enough to get most employees fired).

The Judge ruled The Police’s actions unlawful. The judgement is beautifully written; it quotes Orwell in the opening line, then throws in some Shakespeare, references the KGB and the Stasi and closes with some John Stuart Mill from On Liberty.  What an absolute legend.

I’m normally a supporter of the British police but this is a train-wreck for their reputation. You don’t have take my word for it though…you can read the judgement for yourself here.  The internet allows you to go directly to source and bypass the bias of the press (or blogger 😉 )

One thing that’s become clear to me writing this blog over the past 6 years is how often people self-censor in public conversations both online and in real life…for a mixture of legal, financial and cultural reasons.

[Side note: it’s interesting how few comments are left on financial independence websites in people’s real names…just as very few FI bloggers put their name on their website…mine’s Barney Whiter, since you ask.]

That’s understandable. If you’re employed in The Prison Camp, you risk losing your job, your livelihood and your house if you speak out publicly on a controversial or taboo subject or just show too much independence of thought.

The FIRE movement did not appear in a vacuum. It’s grown in response to a number of problems. One of these is that the modern workplace is often not a happy place where everyone can speak freely.

If your Boss asks you to do something stupid / unethical / illegal, FU Money gives you the ability to politely decline. You’re able to speak your mind, safe in the knowledge that you and your children will be able to eat and keep a roof over your heads.

The thing that The Left used to get right was the idea that employment leads to power imbalances between big corporations and individuals.  If you (the employee) are in debt and don’t have an emergency fund, the problem is 100x worse.

Employers have a right to expect their employees not to bring them into disrepute. But some employers are over-stepping that mark and punishing employees for thoughtcrime. Other employers are bowing to baying mobs on social media that demand that people they disagree with get sacked.

In one case last year, Asda fired store greeter Brian Leach for forwarding on Facebook a Billy Connolly comedy clip mocking religion and suicide bombers. Asda is owned by Walmart, a massive American profit-maximising corporation. I’m guessing that Asda are happy to sell Billy Connolly DVD’s in their stores.  Hypocrisy? It sure looks that way from where I’m standing.

The Labour Party and trade unions are supposed to stand up for ordinary working people. So what do they do when a minimum wage employee is fired for forwarding a Billy Connelly joke on Facebook? Nothing as far I can see…the little guy got cut loose and thrown to the wolves. 

I guess that’s what happens when you are not rich, not photogenic and no one has your back. The Left seem to have abandoned the working class in favour of showing off to each other via “Woke” identity politics. It’s all Hampstead before Huddersfield these days.

Fortunately the press did what they’re supposed to do and, together with The National Secular Society, created enough fuss that the employee was re-instated. Credit where it’s due.

Brian Leach had a theoretical legal right to free speech. But, in practice, he couldn’t exercise that right without losing his job. It’s no problem to lose your job if you’re rich / financially independent. But I’m gonna go out on a limb here and assume that the Yorkshire supermarket worker was not rich.

Sadly, the government can’t wave a magic wand and make everyone rich. There is no free lunch in economics. For the government to give money to one group of people, they have to take it from another group of people (taxpayers).

But the government can wave a magic wand and give everyone a right to free speech.  It’s called “passing a law” and its easy. There will be “experts” (politicians, lawyers and other bureaucrats) that will say this would be impossible / impractical / dangerous…but they are full of shit.

The problem we have in the UK is that badly drafted government legislation (and idiotic police guidelines) have weakened free speech to the point where you can be convicted for telling a bad-taste joke on the internet. Again, this would not be hard to fix:  we could start by repealing (i.e. deleting) s.127 of the 2003 Communications Act and then The Police should stop recording non-crimes and get on with their real job.

In America, where they take free speech seriously, the first amendment to their written constitution says this:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

If anyone thinks creating a similarly robust free speech law for the UK would be difficult, we could…I don’t know…maybe start by taking the paragraph above and swapping “Congress” for “Parliament”? (the lawyers would need to add some wording to reflect that Parliament can’t bind its successors but you get the idea).

And before the binary thinkers get started, you can have exceptions to free speech that include prohibiting libel, slander, defamation, releasing national security secrets and incitement to violence. Which we already do.

If your objection to free-speech is that you don’t want anyone to be upset or offended and you want everyone to be kind, that’s fine. This apparently is a commonly held opinion amongst young people and they’re entitled to their opinion. But I’d ask them to reflect on the fact that history did not start when they were born.

We know from history that when governments ban free speech, bad things happen. Things worse than not being able to afford avocado toast or your wifi buffering or your guinea pig dying. Hard to imagine, I know.

offended

American children get taught about their written constitution at school. I wonder how many schools in the UK teach children about their legal right to free speech? I’m guessing very few.

I’m not buying the argument that there is no space in a busy curriculum for this. As a parent, I know that secondary schools allocate lots of time for nonsense PHSE (Personal Health and Social Education) classes, overseas jollies school trips and celebrating International Kitten Day.

I’m not sure whether most people in the UK even realise they have a legal right to free speech, let alone where their rights come from.  So here’s a layman’s guide to free speech in the UK.

Free speech flows partly from custom and practice. It also flows from the evolution of common law, the accumulated body of a thousand years of court cases in Britain.  Common law works by setting precedents (although the circumstances of each case are different). And free speech is protected by statute law (the Human Rights Act 1998).

Here’s a quick summary of the legal position of free speech in the UK that I stole adapted from last week’s court ruling . In Redmond-Bate v Director of Public Prosecutions (1999) 7 BHRC 375, [20] the judge put it this way:

“Free speech includes not only the inoffensive but the irritating, the contentious, the eccentric, the heretical, the unwelcome and the provocative … Freedom only to speak inoffensively is not worth having…

In other words, freedom of speech means the right to say things that other people will find offensive.

No one has a right to go through life unoffended. Personally, I find most advertising, most of The News and most of the other nonsense on daytime TV to be offensive. But I accept that other people watch that stuff and I don’t try to get it banned. Live and let live, people.

In R v Central Independent Television plc [1994] Fam 192, 202-203, Hoffmann LJ said:

“… a freedom which is restricted to what judges think to be responsible or in the public interest is no freedom. Freedom means the right to publish things which government and judges, however well motivated, think should not be published. It means the right to say things which ‘right-thinking people’ regard as dangerous or irresponsible. This freedom is subject only to clearly defined exceptions laid down by common law or statute.”

I don’t support free speech so that I can go around deliberately offending people. I support free speech because it underpins all our other freedoms. If you’ve been oppressed, no one is gonna know about that and help you if you have no free speech and no ability to speak out.

In R v Shayler [2003] 1 AC 247, [21], Lord Bingham emphasised the connection between
freedom of expression and democracy. He observed that ‘the fundamental right of free
expression has been recognised at common law for very many years’ and explained:

Modern democratic government means government of the people by the people for the people. But there can be no government by the people if they are ignorant of the issues to be resolved, the arguments for and against different solutions and the facts underlying those arguments.

The business of government is not an activity about which only those professionally engaged are entitled to receive information and express opinions. It is, or should be, a participatory process. But there can be no assurance that government is carried out for the people unless the facts are made known, the issues publicly ventilated …”.

The Human Rights Act 1998 enshrined the right to freedom of expression in the UK. I wonder how many people know this?  You really should…it’s important:

Article 10: Freedom of expression

1. Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers. This Article shall not prevent States from requiring the licensing of broadcasting, television or cinema enterprises.

2. The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.

I get that many people are probably not that interested in the free speech debate, perhaps seeing it as a bit academic. There is also a sense here that nice middle-class people should avoid ever offending anyone (I touched on the Nice Guy problem here and here).

But the Overton Window shifts over time and what’s OK to say now may cost you your job in 2 years time. It isn’t academic when your life can be destroyed for clicking like or share on a Facebook post.


Further reading:

http://www.judiciary.uk/judgments/miller-v-college-of-policing

http://www.faircop.org.uk

http://www.freespeechunion.org



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14 comments

  1. Damian Tow · · Reply

    Clearly a subject close to your heart and an important underpinning of ‘independence’, be that financial or otherwise. I re-read 1984 last week and was surprised by how prescient Orwell was (with Alexa-like 2 way telescreens) and how far we have willingly moved to a Big Brother future but I giving up our data for some dopamine-hit ‘likes’.

  2. At 48:50
    Wow. I’ve been concerned a long time that we as a society have given police the power to kill others in our society.
    He mentions here the same sentiment.
    Thanks for sharing this.

    1. Interesting. It’s certainly concerning that sometimes there is a need for the police to kill to protect others, or do you feel that should never be acceptable?

  3. Shared on Facebook This is so important Would love to chat to next visit about how the right to free speech is being impinged on over here in the US

  4. you put a lot of effort into writing this piece – so thank you.
    self-censoring seems to be part of the everyday now. It could be that you toe the line at work, post bullshit careeraholic comments on linkedin about how much you love your job/company/career or in your blog (especially if you are being paid to write an impartial review).

  5. Meanwhile, on the other side of the planet…..

  6. James M Jones · · Reply

    “Hampstead not Huddersfield” – you hit the nail on the head there
    In my view this makes Mr K Starmer the last person that Labour should chose
    as their new leader.

    1. Keir Starmer did pro bono work defending the right of free speech in the ‘McLibel’ trial. This man’s work was visited for these comments after 8 years of Conservatives in power, and 3 years of their being in government along (the verdict coming after 5 years of sole power).

      This is not a party politics issue, or even left vs right. It is those with authoritarian tendancies (try looking at the furor around the [Conservative] Investigatory Powers Act) vs those in favour of individual rights. You’ll find a mix of both parties, or at least you did until Johnson/Cummings purged them all; Sir Nicholas Soames?

  7. Freedom of Speech restrictions, like most legal limits are brought in and justified on extreme cases. “What about someone using blatantly racist abuse?”
    “What about someone spreading false information to deny historical atrocities?”
    “What about pro-anorexia sites that harm young people?”

    When the law is in, it is always used in petty cases. Prosecuting people for jokes, songs, widely held opinions, peaceful protests, private conversations and unpopular, politically incorrect facts.

  8. I’m afraid if there’s risk the police are going to turn up at the prison camp because someone’s taken offence at an opinion expressed then it’s probably safer to keep opinions to yourself.

    It’s also difficult to defend freedom of speech because, unless it’s carefully done, it’s very easy to appear as if you’re defending the opinions rather than the right to express those opinions. It’s all well and good quoting Voltaire “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” but if the police are informing your boss that you’ve been defending Katie Hopkins’ hate filled agenda you’ve got a difficult conversation ahead.

  9. Freedom is speech (and freedom in general) are highly unpopular today. BOTH the left and the right agree that speech should be curtailed; they only differ on the details.

    Visit me in The States sometime and I’ll introduce you to people who would commit physical assault upon anyone who burned the national flag in protest and they would advocate for the public torture of anyone who, for example, took a piss on a crucifix. These are serious thoughtcrimes for conservatives. These same folks will happily defend the police for kicking down the doors of brown-skinned people unannounced and then shooting whomever jumps off the couch in reaction. They have introduced to the English language the concept that persons of certain ethnicities are “illegals” whose mere presence is… illegal. They get their information / propaganda from a news channel essentially owned and controlled by the ruling party.

  10. another fine missive, barney! remember 4-5 years ago when the london mayor ordered the “beach body now” ads from the tube platforms or trains? it was all due to pressure from a vocal minority and i was shocked it went through. all i could think at the time (as an american 3000 miles away) was that was a crease needed for more and more censorship over time. i personally love poor taste especially when i comes to comedy. the monty pythons couldn’t exist today i fear.

    bring back tolerance. we don’t all have to solemnly swear we love everything said. just tolerate it.

  11. Agree with the sentiment and love the blog but why include a link to The Sun? It’s not a question of free speech, they have a right to exist and print whatever, but it’s an absolute rag and should be avoided.

    The idea that they can be held up as the press “doing what they’re supposed to do” is laughable. They’ve spent this week deleting their dozens of negative articles on a celebrity who committed suicide.

  12. Citizen_Lost · · Reply

    I assume 1989 Human Rights Act is a typo for 1998…

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