Alex Massie

Even Goons Have the Right to Freedom of Speech. Especially Goons, in Fact.

Text settings

If only Britain had something comparable to the First Amendment to the United States Constitution then we'd enjoy greater freedoms than is currently the case. Three cheers, then, to Bagehot for defending liberalism and liberty from the predations of the law and, naturally, the Sun newspaper.

The case? An easy one that might have been designed as a litmus or Rorshach test designed to discover who actually really believes in the "values" we like to congratulate ourselves for holding and those for whom such values and concerns are unimportant and may be abandoned at the first sign of trouble or the dreadful prospect that someone, somewhere is doing something of which you disapprove.

So, yes, Emdamur Choudhury should not have been prosecuted, far less convicted for his Remembrance Sunday "protest" during which he burned some poppies and chanted anti-British and anti-military slogans. That the judge imposed the smallest permissable fine - £50 - is not, as the Sun would have it, an example of liberalism or "political correctness" run amok, but of a judge who failed to be liberal enough.

The Sun, never-knowingly under-jackbooted, whines:

What kind of deterrent is £50 to other Islamic fascists bent on sowing hate throughout Britain? How much longer must we tolerate their free speech over-ruling the sanctity of the Remembrance Day silence?

A lot longer I hope. Not least because the ability to tolerate (non-violent) acts you personally find distasteful is one measure of a civilised person or, as in this instance, a civilised society. Moreover, it is always entertaining to be given lessons on anti-fascism by tabloid newspapers, not least because one need have no doubt that the mentality that produces the average British tabloid would be quite at home in a totalitarian or authoritarian regime. (So too, of course, might some members of the soi-disant intelligentsia but that's a different matter.)

Choudhary is an unpleasant piece of work but even dreadful types have rights and while his protest was crude, squalid and calculated to offend that should not be enough to convict him for what is, in the end, the crime of causing offence.

For that matter, the attention lavished upon Choudhary and his goonish pals by the Sun and others is just the kind of thing that pleases them. Better, surely, to treat them with the scorn they merit but retain a dignified and withering silence in the face of their witless provocations. Their aim is publicity and a society riven along religious lines. Why assist them in any way?

The contrast with the United States Supreme Court which recently upheld the right of the equally goonish, even ghoulish, Westboro Baptist Church to picket military funerals is as instructive as it is depressing since it casts speech-liberties in Britain in such an unflattering light. Of course, our solution to the Westboro "problem" is simply to deny them entry to the United Kingdom - a policy I favor no more than I approve of past efforts to exclude the likes of Geert Wilders from this blessed isle.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.