Free speech? Yes. But not absolutely

Every time a conservative speaker is either disinvited or, if appearing, shouted down by a braying mob, the subject of free speech comes up.

The latest such incident occurred at Bristol University, and the speaker subjected to a riotous assault was Jacob Rees-Mogg, MP.

It has to be said that Mr Rees-Mogg asks for it, as far as our masses are concerned. The blighter doesn’t even bother to conceal that he was born with a silver spoon in every orifice of his body.

Mr Rees-Mogg speaks with the kind of patrician accent that even those born to it try to push downmarket not to provoke class war, and he wears Savile Row suits as if he came out of his mother’s womb sporting one.

That sort of thing is by itself enough to provoke a riot. And when he starts to speak, only those stuck in the same mud can possibly resist the desire to commit, as a minimum, ABH against his person.

Mr Rees-Mogg is one of the few politicians who can actually string together several sentences containing no obvious non sequiturs. He limits his rhetorical fallacies to a maximum of one per speech, rather than the more customary one per sentence (sorry, Mrs May). And he makes cogent arguments for Brexit without sputtering spittle all over the rostrum.

This explains the enthusiasm with which masked youngsters disrupted his speech and attacked Mr Rees-Mogg for being a ‘fascist’, ‘Nazi’, ‘racist’ and some such. I don’t know if homophobia and misogyny came up as well. If not, one can only put this glaring omission down to the heat of the moment.

Having dived headlong into the melee, Mr Rees-Mogg later admitted this was the first fist fight of his life (remember those silver spoons?), and it showed in his rather chaotic pugilism. But there was no shortage of courage and backbone – again rare traits among his colleagues.

Anyway, he emerged unscathed, and yet another debate about free speech kicked off. Many a commentator reasonably suggested that free speech only means something if we disagree with the speaker. If we agree, granting such freedom is no hardship.

Even more commentators quoted Voltaire’s maxim: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Stoutly spoken, as befits the master of the epigrammatic genre. But quotations do not a serious argument make.

If we wish to argue seriously, we must start by accepting that freedom of speech isn’t a natural or, if you will, absolute right. There exists an infallible test that proves this.

A real (natural, absolute) right is one that doesn’t presuppose a concomitant obligation on anybody else’s part. The right to life is one such. So is the right to secure property, provided it’s acquired legally. So is… well, I can’t think of any others offhand.

All other rights, including the one to free speech, are a matter of consensus, which can be granted or withdrawn. That means they aren’t really rights (to use the term rigorously) but contracts. One party claims freedom of speech; the other agrees to grant it – but never without qualifications.

Remove all qualifications, and we’ll be begging for freedom from speech, not of it. In other words, some speech is  allowed and some isn’t – always.

The incident at Bristol University was an attack on the kind of speech that so far hasn’t been proscribed by consensus reflected in the law. So by all means do let’s defend it – but only if we recognise that some other kinds of speech may be so proscribed.

For example, I wouldn’t defend to the death the right of a jihadist mullah to make a speech entitled “Let’s build a caliphate on the bones of British infidels”. A neo-Nazi should also be stopped if delivering an address along the lines of “Holocaust never happened – but it will if we try”. The same goes for a fire-eating patriot screaming: “Let’s deport, or ideally kill, all Muslims including (especially?) Baroness Warsi.”

The question will inevitably arise as to where do we draw the line, and who draws it. The only realistic answer available to us today is the government. This, however, implies faith in the government’s unbiased sagacity and its unerring sense of the demarcation line that can never be overstepped.

However, I doubt that many of us share this faith. (Sorry, Mrs May.) And even those who used to have it must feel betrayed by the conveniently broad definition of ‘hate speech’ enforced by HMG.

Good people will appreciate that incitement to kill, say, all Muslims definitely qualifies as such, but they’ll still demur when simply saying that we should prevent the Islamisation of Britain constitutes culpable ‘hate speech’. And, to remove any semblance of objective criteria, a racial insult is defined as anything perceived as such by the person on the receiving end – another example of the government’s incompetence in this matter.

So how do we decide where free speech should begin and end? And who, if not the government, can do so?

Two or even one century ago, it was understood that there was only one  institution whose moral judgement was capable of rising above the short-term expediency by which the state lives: the Church.

Yet giving this answer today would brand one as an even greater reactionary than Mr Rees-Mogg. Hankering after the past is like reaching for a pie in the sky long after salmonella has set in.

However, it’s impossible to answer those questions satisfactorily in the absence of an absolute moral authority, empowered to adjudicate secular diktats. Without it, any answer will be arbitrary, and vital issues, such as free speech, will be left at the mercy of those manifestly unqualified to solve them.

(Sorry, Mrs May.)


13 thoughts on “Free speech? Yes. But not absolutely”

  1. Freedom of expression is indeed an unalienable right under English Common Law. If I don’t have the right to publicly express an opinion, then neither does the Prime Minister, for example.

    The moderation of this right has always been contained within, perfectly adequate, slander, libel and incitement laws, as well as laws designed for the preservation of public order. Conflicting opinions in these areas are resolved in a court of law. I can remember my father saying that, if I were to say: “You’re an idiot!” then I leave myself open to a slander action – but no-one can stop me saying: “I think you’re an idiot!”

    The rest comes under the umbrella of, what we used to call, ‘manners’.

  2. I don’t think inalienable constitutional liberties should extend to enemies of the constitution. Let, say, jihadists, orate publicly, and eventually there goes the right to free speech, alienated right out of the window.

    1. The problem is law that is not being enforced.

      Laws like ‘affray’, ‘disturbing the peace’ and ‘disorderly conduct’ give the police a great deal of discretion. People who throw eggs and chant ‘scum!’ at Tory party delegates, for example, could easily be charged under these laws. Unfortunately the political will isn’t there.

      One can also argue that certain verses in the Koran constitute incitement and certain islamists have definitely committed that offence – publicly and on television – but, again, no political will to enforce the law.

  3. The younger men of the upper classes in England used to take up boxing? This was called muscular Christianity. Maybe they need some muscular Christianity now?

  4. I concur with Fin and think that Mr Boot has not fully understood the inherited English tradition of freedom of speech, not conferred on us by statute and therefore vulnerable to the constraints any nanny-minded politician might wish to impose upon it to empower his or her political agenda. Those people are transient caretakers who have no right to trample on English freedom of speech in an attempt to deal with problems which they have caused by their foolish and reckless policies. Freedom of speech is not a gift for them to give or withhold.

    Absolutely right that we already have perfectly good law to deal with incitement to violence and absolutely right that the failure of the police to prevent disorder (in accordance with Peel’s Principles of policing) by enforcing existing law has undermined freedom of speech. Blair’s bad law has distracted from these failures.

    Together with voting (not much good in these days of socialist party monopoly), freedom of speech is the only weapon that the common man has against tyranny without resorting to armed rebellion.

    1. I’m afraid it’s who who didn’t quite understand my main points. 1) Nowhere and at no time – not even in the ‘inherited English tradition of freedom of speech’ – has this freedom been absolute. It has always been contingent on the kind of speech. 2) Like all other contingent freedoms, this one isn’t a suicide pact. Any society has a right to self-defence. 3) We do have perfectly good laws to deal with incitement to violence, but we no longer have – nor are likely ever again to have – the kind of political culture within which such laws can be properly interpreted, applied and enforced. Today’s ‘nanny politicians’ are almost guaranteed to ban the kind of speech that shouldn’t be banned and vice versa. 4) This situation can only be prevented when there exists a moral authority that’s higher than politicians. That means the Church, which is an essential part of English tradition, and without which this tradition will certainly be debauched. All in all, such issues involve the kind of subtleties and depths that can’t be adequately covered by obvious references to civil liberties.

      1. If I may arbitrate…

        Your religious argument, Mr B, concerns societal manners. ‘Do as you would be done by’, ‘Cast the mote out of thine own eye’ – everything that Western civilisation is in the process of shedding – to righteous howls of rage from all of us!

        What I (and I think, if I may presume, Colonel Mustard) are arguing….is that saying, to a freeborn Englishman, that he has the right to free speech, is like saying that he has the right to breathe oxygen. It is beyond the gift of politicians to grant or deny.

        Blair tried to introduce a halfway house with the HRA – sneakily (how else?) trying to introduce the idea that ‘rights’ are granted by politicians à la, Napoleonic code, Europe.

        Theresa May is already trying to introduce a ‘new’ law – ‘intimidation of political representatives and campaigners.’ – when existing laws already exist to counter the problem.

        The problem is that the existing laws are not being enforced and the discretionary powers of the individual constable have been removed through a combination of politics and a politicised, police command structure.

        1. You’re responding to some noises sounding inside your head of a freeborn Englishman. These are so loud that you can’t hear my argument – to a point where you’re repeating it. And mine is an historical and philosophical, rather than religious, argument. If freedom of speech were absolute and not contingent, no restrictions of it would be just. This is the case with the right to life, for example, or one to secure property. Yet you yourself have sited several restrictions even a freeborn Englishman finds perfectly acceptable. These apply, say, to libel, incitement to riot, enemy proppaganda at war time or simply shouting ‘Fire!’ in a crowded cinema and creating a stampede. Ergo, being restrictable, this right isn’t absolute, but a matter of consensus. (This is elementary political science.) Some authority has to decide on those restrictions, and the populace of freeborn Englishmen has to accept its decision. You yourself provide telling examples showing that today’s politicians aren’t qualified to pass judgement on this matter. If they do, then a a freeborn Englishman saying, for instance, that perhaps turning England into a Kasbah isn’t a good idea may go to jail, while other freeborn Englishmen may shout down with impunity a speaker saying that England’s sovereignty is worth keeping. There must exist an institution trusted to pass such judgement, which historically has been the Church. ‘Institution’ is the operative word – my argument isn’t just historical or religious, but ecclesiastical. Because, as you correctly suggest, Christianity has stopped being a social dynamic and the ultimate arbiter, having been relegated to a quasi-governmental, quasi-political role, or else to one of a personal idiosyncrasy, we have the likes of Blair and May running unopposed and destroying the very society created over centuries by freeborn Englishmen.

          1. They are not just noises in the head but the born into reality that pertained at the time and for many years afterwards and which only recently politicians of all stripes seek to deny. And you are attempting to justify their oppression which is surprising.

            It should not be possible in England to be sent to prison for simply expressing an opinion however unpalatable. That pertained in the past and has now been curtailed. Of course nanny politicians will seek to justify that by dissembling about incitement, or libel, shouting “Fire!”, or as is now fashionable for them, post-Blair, “hate”, an emotion which they might try to prevent being articulated but which they cannot (yet) prevent being felt. In fact their oppression tends to incite hatred – or at least resentment – as every oppressor in history has discovered. If a person feels hate for something he should have the right to express that, however irrational and as many do, without sanction because the particular target(s) of their hatred do not enjoy the selective protection of those who rule over us.

            And if the measure is offence then so what? Theresa May and other politicians say things all the time that deeply offend me. If the giving of offence be the subjective measure then let her cart herself off to jail. Much as the Canutes who rule over us might try they cannot legislate to force us be nice to one another. And why should they after the juvenile displays of articulated hostility in the Commons day after day.

      2. Oh, the freedom is absolute alright. You are describing the ways in which that freedom is now curtailed – or justified in being curtailed – which is a different thing entirely.

        Your 3) concedes my own point. The law against incitement to violence did not curtail freedom of speech but only incitement to violence which is a different thing. Incitement is incitement and speech is speech. For example if a man should say “I think lawyers should be taken out and shot” that is a different thing to “Let’s take out the lawyers and shoot them!”. The one is the expression of an opinion and the other an incitement.

        Blair and his grisly gang pulled the shroud of misprision over that subtlety of distinction and it has got worse ever since with the usual political trick of asking for an inch and then taking a mile. I’ve never accepted the “shouting fire” cliché to justify the curtailment of free speech because that concerns the making of a deliberate mischief – a hoax, the setting off of a false alarm. Again it is not speech, not the articulation of an opinion, however unpalatable. This cliché was much used by New Labour to justify their various intrusions upon the freedom of people and is still used by those who ought to know better. It is a rotten analogy for the constraining of free speech but deliberately contrived to make people think it acceptable for the “authorities” to exercise power over what can and can’t be said – or written.

        As to your 4) not really. The Church was never an authority on speech except where it concerned heresy which does not – or should not concern us now.

        In the past there was much consternation at the practice of anonymous pamphleting which was used to lampoon public figures often robustly and crudely. The authorities went to great lengths to try to stop it with the laws of sedition, obscenity, etc., but the people never consented. The internet has now freed everyone to publish “pamphlets” anonymously and the authorities still don’t like it so are doing their utmost to contrive laws to stop it by assigning the same or similar qualifications that you do. But the right to verbally denounce and defy authority is a freedom which pre-dates and has primacy over their laws in that regard. Let me try to articulate that with the analogy of occupied France. There were laws there too, imposed by force, but they were not legitimate and courageous people defied them. And just because our politicians are not an alien occupying force (although I sometimes have my doubts about that) does not give them the right to impose bad law. Oh, of course they can do it by force but it is not legitimate and by doing so they become oppressors. In that House of Commons now they conspire to exercise that sort of imposed control and whereas in the past some MPs would have defended traditional freedoms and sought not to become cast as oppressors, the current crop seem to think it their role to impose on us, justified by all sorts of contrived nonsense.

        Fin articulates it perfectly below – “It is beyond the gift of politicians to grant or deny.”

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