British Prime Minister David Cameron has long been a target of civil libertarians criticizing his dismissive attitude toward basic rights and particularly speech and privacy rights in that country. As if to prove his critics right, Cameron has publicly made comments that can be best described as Orwellian and some have gone as far as describing as fascistic. In calling for new extensive powers, Cameron said “For too long, we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our citizens: as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone. It’s often meant we have stood neutral between different values. And that’s helped foster a narrative of extremism and grievance.” It seemed like a scene out of V for Vendetta as Cameron called on citizens to give up their rights to fight the threat of terror.
This chilling statement was made in support of new counter-terrorism powers that include new police powers to apply to the high court for an order to limit the “harmful activities” of an extremist individual. The definition of harmful is to include a risk of public disorder, a risk of harassment, alarm or distress or creating a “threat to the functioning of democracy”. That ill-defined standard would allow a wide array of speech to be effectively criminalized by the government. It is hard to see how much unpopular speech would not pose a “risk of harassment, alarm, or distress.” I am not even sure what “creating a threat to the function of democracy” means. More importantly, speakers will not know what the government will view as violating such ill-defined terms.
England has seen the rise of calls for speech prosecutions, including this month. We have previously discussed the alarming rollback on free speech rights in the West, particularly in England ( here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here).
Cameron has become the face of the trend toward the criminalization of speech. Despite our great debt to England and shared values, the two countries differ dramatically in their approaches to free speech. The English have long given the Crown sweeping powers under the expectation that these powers will be used judiciously. For much of its history, the Crown has shown restraint but it has also a history of threatening media and unpopular speakers. There is a risk that the current fears over Islamic extremism will convince people to embrace a type of benign authoritarianism. When you have a Prime Minister who feels comfortable in criticizing a history of being a “tolerant passive society,” it is clear that we are entering a dangerous period where citizens may indeed voluntarily give up the rights secured at such a great cost by prior generations.