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Free Speech in Britain: On Policing People’s Free Speech

Shane Shuma ’22, Opinion Columnist

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Freedom of speech is the single most important thing in a democracy. The definition of a democracy is a political system in which the people govern themselves, mostly through elected representatives. The one value that must be inherent to all democracies is the value of equality, that every person has value and that everyone has something to contribute. If democracies didn’t have this value, we wouldn’t have equal protection under the law, civil liberties, and opportunity, and they would inevitably become more elitist in structure because people would be valued differently politically. While equality and freedom of speech are not the same, freedom of speech ensures equality because it ensures that everyone’s’ beliefs have some value, even if they are incorrect. If a person’s opinions and feelings cannot be expressed, then how can they have civil liberties, equal opportunity, or equal protection.

     Democracies that curb free speech become more elitist, and that is especially true in the case of the United Kingdom. The laws in the country are so strict, they extend to all aspects of media and the threshold is way too low. For example, YouTuber Mark Meechan was fined 800 British pounds for causing “gross offence” after posting a video of a pug doing a Nazi salute when prompted. Meechan is no actual Nazi, he was just trolling his girlfriend who owned the pug. He wanted to show the pug in the least cute light possible, which he did. 

Now you may say that this is no big deal, that he deserved the 800 pound fine, but this isn’t the whole story. He was first arrested, and then a Sheriff ruled that he didn’t agree with the context provided that it was a joke, even though the tile of the video was “M8 Yer Dugs a Nazi.” He was convicted of gross offence in a subsequent trial, yet it was the government that determined how much and what offence was suffered, not actual people who were offended. And you may say it’s just a fine, but have you ever considered what happens when you don’t pay a fine?

 This happened almost a year ago, so why is it relevant? It is relevant because the laws that caused Meechan to be convicted still exist. The government of Britain has too much authority in legislating morality, and it should leave regulation of speech to the people of Britain through boycotts and conversations, not jail cells and massive fines. A few days ago, Humberside police in the UK investigated someone who retweeted an anti-trans-male post written by a radical feminist. He hadn’t committed any crimes, just barely going below the “offence” threshold with a retweet. 

He talked to the police on the phone, and the officer on the other side said he should think before speaking and that he should worry about his job, even though he was self-employed (the officer didn’t know that). The most disturbing thing about this incident was that Humberside police had no jurisdiction in the person’s area, and was just seeking out and prosecuting offence on behalf of the government wherever it could find it. Censoring people and threatening to arrest them because they don’t agree with you or cause unexplained and undefined offence makes you closer to a fascist then a liberal.

The UK should amend its communication laws so that it is no longer policing people’s thoughts and needs to stay out of social media for the most part. They should also make clearer the line between an actual hate crime and causing people to be offended. The reason these laws contribute to elitism is because they mandate that everyone in Britain thinks a certain way, and if some people don’t, they lose their fundamental value as people. Context shouldn’t be decided by the state. 

People laugh when others say that these laws will cause jokes to be banned, but because these communication laws are so vague and the threshold for offence is so low, its already happening in Britain. As a country we should never let the government legislate this kind of morality, as that kind of legislation is a fundamental attack on individualism and democracy itself. Now, would I retweet a transphobic post or make a meme video where I teach my dog to do the Hitler salute? No. Do I think that people don’t have the right to criticize Meechan or the other guy? No. But, that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be allowed to express themselves and then receive consequences not by the government, but by those in their community.

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1 Comment

One Response to “Free Speech in Britain: On Policing People’s Free Speech”

  1. Terry Moe on February 11th, 2019 12:42 am

    Shane Shuma, your column is excellent: well written, well argued, and hard-hitting.

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Free Speech in Britain: On Policing People’s Free Speech