First it was the police raiding your home for telling politically incorrect jokes on the Internet.
Now, under a law proposed by Home Secretary Theresa May to control “extremist speech,” people who say things others find offensive could be served with an “Extremism Disruption Order” and be forced to clear with the police first anything they want to publish online or say in a public forum — even a simple tweet or a Facebook post:
Last month, May unveiled her ambition to “eliminate extremism in all its forms.” Whether you’re a neo-Nazi or an Islamist, or just someone who says things which betray, in May’s words, a lack of “respect for the rule of law” and “respect for minorities”, then you could be served with an extremism disruption order (EDO).
Strikingly, EDOs will target even individuals who do not espouse or promote violence, which is already a crime in the U.K. As May says, “The problem that we have had is this distinction of saying we will only go after you if you are an extremist that directly supports violence. [This] has left the field open for extremists who know how not to step over the line.” How telling that a leading British politician should be snotty about “this distinction” between speech and violence, between words and actions, which isn’t actually some glitch in the legal system, as she seems to think, but rather is the foundation stone on which every free, democratic society ought to be built.
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).
What sort of people might find themselves branded “extremists” and thus forbidden from speaking in public? Anyone, really. The definition of extremist being bandied about by May and her colleagues is so sweeping that pretty much all individuals with outré or edgy views could potentially find themselves served with an EDO and no longer allowed to make any public utterance without government approval.
So you won’t have to incite violence to be labelled an extremist —in May’s words, these extremism-disrupting orders will go “beyond terrorism.” May says far-right activists and Islamist hotheads who have not committed any crime or incited violence could be served with an order to shut the hell up. She has also talked about people who think “a woman’s intellect [is] deficient,” or who have “denounced people on the basis of their religious beliefs,” or who have “rejected democracy”—these folk, too, could potentially be branded extremists and silenced. In short, it could become a crime punishable by gagging to be a sexist or a religion-hater or someone who despises democracy.
In other words, say or write something someone in government (or who can pressure government) doesn’t like, and you’ll find yourself smacked with a “Speak Only When Allowed” order. This in the land from which we inherited our beliefs in free speech as a natural right of all humans, the dogma that no person could truly be free without the ability to speak their mind without fear of reprisal, regardless of the subject and regardless of how offensively put. Once you set government up as the arbitrator of what may and may not be said, you’ve then gone from being a free-born citizen to a servant of the State, speaking only when Master gives leave.
I can see why the Conservative (1) government might want to do this; they have a hell of a problem on their hands with radical imams recruiting for jihad against Britain and the West, as well as encouraging young Muslims to go join ISIS. But you don’t deal with the problem by threatening everyone for speaking their minds. All that does is force people to guard their thoughts and “go underground.” It’s the same flaw –the criminalization of thought and opinion– that lies behind so-called “hate crime” legislation here in the United States.
Rather, the way to deal with so-called extremist, hateful speech is to expose it in the marketplace of ideas and show how fallacious it is. Tolerating people saying things we don’t like is a small price to pay when compared to what we lose when we repress the right to speak freely at all.
Great Britain is the land that gave birth to free speech; it would be a shame if she were also the first Anglospheric nation to put a stake in its heart.
(1) The irony is knee-deep here.