It seems that the British state is ratcheting up its censorship of unpopular opinions.
In December, Isabel Vaughan-Spruce was arrested in Birmingham after the police questioned her for silently praying within the “buffer zone” of an abortion clinic. Last week, Adam Smith-Connor was fined in Bournemouth for doing the same.
Buffer zones prohibit protests against abortion within a certain distance of a clinic for the stated purpose of protecting women from harassment. They have been established by local authorities in the U.K., but a recent amendment made to the national Public Order Bill imposes 150-meter buffer zones nationwide.
The state has twisted laws that are intended to prohibit harassment in order to censor unpopular opinions. Buffer zone laws represent the escalation of that censorship. The state cannot be trusted to draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable speech without censoring its political opponents. Therefore, those of us disturbed by the growth of political censorship must be unafraid to speak and campaign in defense of the right to absolute freedom of speech, even for those who hold the most abhorrent views.
Last month, Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party leader Jeffrey Donaldson raised the issue of abortion clinic buffer zones at a recent parliamentary questioning of the prime minister. Rishi Sunak responded, “Of course we believe in freedom of religion, belief and expression in this country, but we are also balancing that with the rights of women to seek legal and safe abortions.” Sunak delivered these words with no interruptions or uproar from the House. The muted parliamentary reaction does not, however, detract from just how dangerous his words really were.
Speech is not coercive. It cannot prevent someone from exercising a right and thus does not need to be “balanced” with other rights. The fact that this seems alien to the political class is symptomatic of Britain’s alienation from the basic principles of a free society. Censorship of dissent is always outrageous, but seeing it happen in a country in which so many of the liberal Enlightenment’s core ideas were formulated is even more tragic. So how did we get here?
The problem started when we conceded that the state had any right to regulate the content of speech.
Originally, modern censorship laws were designed to prohibit the most repugnant types of speech — speech so revolting that nearly everyone in society condemns it. When legislators have outlawed certain types of expression, they have usually done so on sound principles that are widely held. For example, the belief in racial equality that informed Public Order Act 1986’s prohibition on stirring up racial hatred is a correct and noble one.
Because belief in the principle of racial equality is solidified in the law and public opinion, racially aggravated hate speech is thought of as “beyond the pale,” and, as such, censoring it does not risk the suppression of political opinions. The same is true for homophobic or ableist hatred and speech promoting proscribed terrorist groups.
The problem is that the line between what is repugnant and what is political is almost impossible to draw. Take the famous case of Count Dankula, a Scottish YouTuber who was arrested and fined for violating Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003, which prohibits “grossly offensive” speech. The offending act was posting a video of his pug performing a Nazi salute — more political satire than repugnant speech. (RELATED: Internet Provocateur Charged With Conspiracy to Disseminate Election Misinformation via Memes)
Because the line is so blurred, those given the power to draw it are likely to allow their political views to influence where it is drawn. As demonstrated by Sunak’s answer to the question about buffer zones, giving them that power will often result in the censoring of dissenting viewpoints.
Arguments like these are often accused of engaging in the slippery slope fallacy, which occurs when a person puts forward no evidence that the extreme hypothetical — in this case, the censorship of political speech — will occur. But that supposed fallacy has been proven correct by recent events. The state has decided that pro-life views are too repugnant to be worthy of full protection. And why wouldn’t they? The precedent already exists.
The state believes that people have the right to be treated equally because of their skin color. It also believes that many types of hate speech threaten that right, justifying legislation to suppress that threat.
If the state believes that a woman has the right to an abortion, it will argue that pro-life speech is a threat to that right. Consequently, it will legislate to suppress that threat when it arises near an abortion clinic.
This is how Britain has become a country where people are fined and arrested for silently praying near an abortion clinic. It is not a conspiracy cooked up by evil ministers but the inevitable conclusion of accepting the premise that the government should decide which types of expression are acceptable and which are not.
When it comes to the state, the slippery slope almost always becomes a cliff. We must not protest only the censorship of political viewpoints that we approve of or consider mainstream, but instead fight for the principle that the state has no right to police the content of a person’s speech — however vile, irrational, or repugnant we may find it.
Harrison Griffiths is a political commentator with Young Voices UK. Harrison has been featured on media outlets, including Times Radio and GB News. He tweets at @RealHarrisonG.
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