You used to often hear the expression “its a free country” in everyday usage in the UK. The phrase was usually used as a response when someone said “you can’t do that” or something similar, and was usually used in a fairly jokey spirit. You seldom hear this phrase nowadays. The fighting spirit and sense of humour that used to characterize the British people has been slowly ebbing away, gradually suffocated by a climate of overweening political “correctness”. Particularly in the area of freedom of speech our liberty has been gradually reduced, almost without a whimper from the populace. It is as though the British people as a whole no longer even really value freedom of speech very highly any more.
Its not just the mainstream media that is creating a climate of hostility to free speech, but increasingly Western governments are enacting and enforcing laws that restrict speech far beyond the very small limitations that used to be accepted. For example, lets look at the recent case of one Stephen Bennett who was prosecuted, convicted and sentenced to a 12 month community order including 180 hours of unpaid work. His crime? He had made some general remarks on social media about Asian women and Muslims, that were deemed to be “grossly offensive” under the Communications Act 2003.
Manchester Evening News reported the case. Their journalists were not apparently told all the details of what he had written that was deemed so “grossly offensive”. All that had been revealed to the press apparently is that he had written this (1):
“Don’t come over to this country and treat it like your own. Britain first.”
WHAT DID HE MEAN?
Now, I don’t know how on earth anybody could come to the conclusion that this statement alone is so “GROSSLY offensive” that it should warrant prosecution at all let alone warrant a 12 month community order. Possibly there was something much more offensive in the other things he wrote that have not been revealed. Let us examine this statement however and try to decide what he meant. I personally feel the statement is vague and could be interpreted in two different ways.
THE WORST CASE
I think the worst possible meaning of this sentence is that it could be seen as implying that Asian/Muslim people who are born in this country do not really belong here. That’s not very nice to them, a bit offensive perhaps, but if people take SUCH great exception to this then really I have to say I don’t think they are very mature people. Mr. Bennett is a cleaner, it is not as if his voice carries huge weight in our country. He does not have 1000s of followers and he is not a high profile figure, or at least he wasn’t, before the state decided to prosecute him for nothing much. In any case I find it really rather difficult to believe that this was what Mr. Bennett really meant, because apparently “His lawyer added that his mother-in-law and sister-in-law were Muslims, and that he was not racist.” (1). I am therefore rather strongly inclined to think this is not what he meant.
THE BEST CASE
I think the best interpretation is that its a statement of who we the British are. We are people who do not believe in Sharia law, we are people who believe in women’s equality, and crucially we are people who believe in FREEDOM OF SPEECH. Our Prime Minister Theresa May has reiterated that FREEDOM OF SPEECH is one of our VALUES. The Muslim culture does not believe in FREEDOM OF SPEECH, criticism of the man the Muslims regard as their prophet is strictly forbidden in Muslim culture, and indeed was forbidden by Mohammed himself. Take for example the case of Asia Bibi, who was imprisoned on death row for 9 long years for the “crime” of blasphemy. Readers should note that in her case lawyers were too frightened to talk about what she had said, i.e. the lawyers in the case COULD NOT TALK DURING THE COURT CASE ABOUT WHAT SHE WAS BEING PROSECUTED FOR SAYING. Can you not see the direction of travel that we are heading in here? Those of you who are familiar with Franz Kafka’s nightmarish novel “The Trial” will see parallels with that great novel as well.
If this interpretation was what Mr. Bennett really meant by what he said then I AGREE WHOLEHEARTEDLY WITH WHAT HE SAID. His conviction should be overturned IMMEDIATELY and he should be compensated fully for:
- Loss of earnings while on trial.
- Anxiety sustained during the legal process and after it.
- Danger to him and his family created by having his identity revealed and his picture splashed on national newspapers.
- Any impact on his future job prospects (in perpetuity) that the case has caused (this could be considerable and he has several children to support).
I also think he should be given a book deal and invited to speak at all the major British universities who seem to have forgotten the value of freedom of speech. Any students who attempt to “no-platform” him should be expelled from their British university immediately. He should be cheered by true Brits everywhere he goes, whatever their ethnic origin, because true Brits believe in Freedom of Speech. It is who we are.
He should be given an Order of the British Empire medal and invited to Buckingham Palace to have a cup of tea with the Queen so that she can thank him from her heart for standing up for her (and our) country’s most important values. He should also be invited to no.10 Downing Street so that Theresa May can apologize to him in person for failing to defend his liberty. She was after all the Home Secretary for 5 years and now she is the Prime Minister. She has had plenty of time to revise or repeal the law he was charged under, among other things she needs to apologize for.
All of this is conditional of course – it must be revealed that the rest of what he said was also in keeping with this sentiment.
WE SHOULD BE TOLD IN FULL WHAT HE HAD WRITTEN THAT RESULTED IN THE JUDGEMENT
This is one of my biggest issues with the case in fact, the fact the details are being kept from us. I think we SHOULD be told what he said, for these reasons:
- The words did not refer to anyone specifically (as far as we can tell from the article), so there is no danger involved in revealing the words. Its not a similar case to where you need an injunction.
- Lots of similar comments are (probably) being made all over social media, its hardly as if the opinions he expressed are some big secret.
- If they are not revealed the punishment will have no deterrence on others (readers please note I make this argument as it were from the point of view of those who think a person should be punished for making such a comment, obviously I don’t think so).
A counter argument to all this is that perhaps his life might be endangered if the comments are fully revealed. However there are bigger issues at stake than one individual’s personal safety here. If the authorities can silence opinions and the public not be told what those opinions are, then the authorities now have a hugely unreasonable degree of power over the citizens. We are living in an Orwellian police state already. George Orwell warned us that such a society might develop in the future in his book 1984. We should have been heeding his warning, now look at the mess we’re in.
THE AUTHORITIES ARE JUST TRYING TO MAINTAIN LAW AND ORDER
I suspect this is at least to an extent the thinking behind (or the excuse for) this kind of prosecution. However what we (including the govt.) need to remember is that freedom of speech is not easily won yet it can be very easily lost. Sometimes you have to take risks to preserve it. We must be courageous in defence of our freedom. Theresa May should remember that keeping law and order is only one of her duties as Prime Minister, defending Freedom of Speech is another that is just as important.
A law that criminalizes statements that are “grossly offensive” is not a law that can be applied fairly and consistently, because the statement is inherently subjective. What is offensive to some people is often a funny joke to others. We need this law (Tony Blair’s Communications Act 2003) to be repealed or at the very least reworded to remove this incredibly vague statement.
I was born free, in a free country, and I yearn to live in a free country again. Please help my wish come true by linking to this post, or republishing it (with acknowledgement and a link to my site please) or write your own post about the case.