Friday, November 30, 2012

Britain's speech sickness and why Leveson would make it worse

'I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty, than those attending too small a degree of it.'

Thomas Jefferson was right, free speech is not a perfect value. Because of the infinite subjectivity that defines free speech, sometimes its ideal can achieve a discord counter to the common interest. But when free speech is excessively restrained, society is also detained in a dark, stagnant cell of lost ideas and imprisoned truths. Sadly in Britain, the cell door is closing at an alarming rate.

In order to keep the cell door open, the British Parliament must first reject Leveson's advisory to establish a new press regulatory framework. If MPs follow his recommendations, they will weaken the 'scrutiny of power' that any functioning democracy requires. A new and expansive regulatory body will mean that the contours of 'legitimate' speech in Britain, are practically and (via the 'chilling effect') perceptively determined by the subjective opinions of regulators, rather than by the individual instincts of journalists. Hacking and harassment are already illegal under UK law and simply require more effective enforcement. New restrictions on press freedom would only serve to reinforce the terrible condition of the UK's present speech law.
For a timely example of the current law's negative impact, look to Lord McAlpine. After wrongly being accused as a sex offender, McAlpine's ensuing fury was obviously justified. Unfortunately, instead of pursuing vindication via the facts, McAlpine has gone far further. Seeking to take advantage of the thousands of twitter users who repeated the false allegations when they first made the news (and before the error became established), McAlpine's legal team have demanded that all these 'tweeters' pay a price. Tweeters must apologize, hand over their details and will then be required to make individually determined charity donations (plus an 'administration charge') in restitution for their sins.

McAlpine seeks to use the law for intimidation and profit. By attacking non-malicious speech by those who, albeit wrongly, believed they were speaking on a critical truth - a sex abuse scandal at the heart of the British political establishment, McAlpine is challenging the basic and larger presumption of free speech - 'scrutiny of power'. McAlpine could have accepted an apology and compensation from major media outlets. Instead, by the impact his lawsuits will have on 'chilling' future speech, the former Parliamentarian has struck another blow against free speech in Britain.

Beyond McAlpine's example, there are two overarching elements to Britain's present speech malady - the criminal element and the commercial.

First, the criminal side. This year, Britons have been arrested for an array of speech offenses. In March, a student was imprisoned for his racist tweets. In August, a seventeen year old was arrested and given a formal warning after he sent a taunting message to an Olympian. In October, a man was jailed for 12 weeks after he made jokes about a missing five year old girl. In November, a man was arrested after he set fire to a poppy and uploaded its photo onto Facebook. True, all these acts were affronts to common decency. But it's also true that in each case, the speakers words lacked a joined violent intention. By setting such a restrictive boundary for speech, English law asserts popular emotion at the cost of the individual's voice. Supporters of these restrictions would have us believe that the laws stabilize society by establishing norms of social interaction. They are wrong. By limiting speech on passionately held issues, the law drives the purveyors of such speech to burrow into hardened narratives of victimhood and to coalesce in new coalitions of anger and fear. Just look at the rise of the far right 'English Defense League'. For all its idiocy and evil, the group is still seen by its members as a voice for the 'oppressed'.

As history teaches us, excessive restriction of free speech can also quickly lead to a deeply unpleasant reality.

Now the commercial front to Britain's speech sickness.
Though obfuscated by the phone hacking scandal, over the past few years Britain's rich and powerful have increasingly pursued aggressive legal action against those who would threaten their 'brand image'. Using democratically ludicrous creations like the 'super-injunction', lawyers have gagged the public. At the same time, by restricting public awareness of public figures true personas and then simultaneously allowing those figures to make money off their false public images, the Courts have stood in defense of false corporate personalities. An example? Until his super-injunction cloaked extra-marital affair was leaked in Parliament, soccer star Ryan Giggs was viewed by countless parents as a role model for their children. When you consider Giggs's endorsement deals, his false personality certainly did no harm for his wallet.

So, thanks to the English Courts and their ally in Leveson, public access to relevant knowledge is being sacrificed at the false altar of 'private information'. The result? The English judiciary has become an absolute arbiter of 'fact', as well as a gleeful and in terms of 'binding the world', even global defender of misrepresentation. Thus far, the British Government has been an active ally to this agenda.

Aside from the philosophical-moral deficiency inherent in Britain's war on free speech, English law also reaps varied and highly destructive practical consequences for the UK. 


Fearing a defamation suit, The Sunday Times failed to print allegations that Qatar's soccer World Cup bid was being pursued via corrupt means. The impact? In 2022, the world's greatest supporting event might be the result of bribes.

Art critics are increasingly reluctant to report suspected forgeries.

Terrorism researchers writing thousands of miles away from Britain are summoned to pay defamation awards in response to their crucial analysis.

In 2008, Jimmy Savile (Britain's Sandusky) sued The Sun after it linked him to a sex abuse scandal. Savile effectively chilled future allegations and was able to escape justice for the many sex crimes it now appears that he committed.

And so, from art to criminal conduct, from sport to politics, the insidious face of British speech law is rendered apparent. Without tolerance for speech, British democracy will become little more than the servant of the lawyer and the bastion of the activist judge. Free speech imprisoned; debate will stifle, ideas will wilt and the powerful will reap the dividends of a society deprived of effective scrutiny.

The British Parliament must reject the Leveson report.

If you liked this piece, you might enjoy one of my other free speech focused pieces-
American Free Speech is Exceptional
Free speech in NYC
The most recent US free speech case. We are lucky to have The First Amendment.


  1. Great article- well written in a way that highlights just how long the 'speech' issue has been rumbling along here in the UK.

    1. Thanks Liam, really appreciate your kind comment. Best, Tom

  2. I'm from the U.S. and it irks me to no end that freedom of speech is being attacked and compromised by politicians who are obsessed with making money. They let money blind themselves from reality and without the freedom to express yourself in the way that you want, will lead to a deadening of artistic creation and scientific innovation. Without these things, we cannot hope to evolve and man will either go mad from his own mental confinement, or he will return to the peace and safety of the Dark Ages.