We have been discussion how England has seen the rise of calls for speech prosecutions. The trend appears to be accelerating under David Cameron. While seen across Europe, this trend has been especially pronounced free speech rights in the Westin England ( here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here). In one of the most vivid examples of the decline of free speech in England, an evangelical preacher named James McConnell, 78, from Northern Ireland has been charged criminally for calling Islam “satanic.” The preacher is charged with spreading a “grossly offensive” message for what should be considered (and protected) as religious and political speech.
In a May 2014 sermon, James McConnell told worshippers at the Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle that “Islam is heathen. Islam is satanic.” The sermon attracted attention online and led to a charge based on transmitting an offensive message over an electronic communications network. Such statements can and should be denounced as sweeping and offensive. However, the prosecution of such views represents a far greater danger for a free nation.
Nevertheless Prosecutor David Russell told Belfast Magistrates’ Court that the case had “nothing to do with religion or freedom of expression.” I am not sure what is more chilling, the prosecution or the prosecutor’s utter lack of recognition of free speech implications of the case. Russell insisted that criminal charges are warranted because McConnell “characterizes the followers of an entire religion in a stereotypical way. And that’s grossly offensive and that’s not protected from saying it from a pulpit.”
So that is what has become of free speech in England. A preacher can be arrested for declaring other religious practices or beliefs as evil. Indeed, it is apparently enough to “characterize the followers of an entire religion in a stereotypical way.”
England remains one of two greatest concentrations of readers for our blog. There is a sizable civil liberties community in England but they are under attack by a rising number of citizens who want to regulate and punish unpopular speech. It is precisely what religious extremists like ISIS have long demanded from the West. For many years, I have been writing about the threat of an international blasphemy standard and the continuing rollback on free speech in the West. For recent columns, click here and here and here.
Much of this writing has focused on the effort of the Obama Administration to reach an accommodation with allies like Egypt and Pakistan to develop a standard for criminalizing anti-religious speech. We have been following the rise of anti-blasphemy laws around the world, including the increase in prosecutions in the West and the support of the Obama Administration for the prosecution of some anti-religious speech under the controversial Brandenburg standard.
These cases reflect the true purpose of blasphemy laws: to silence minority sects and religious critics in the name of a “true faith.” Fortunately the effort of Hillary Clinton and others in the Administration to reach a compromise on blasphemy failed, though there continue to be efforts to create an international standard.
However, even after declaring themselves “friends of Charlie” in the aftermath of the Hebdo killings, Western leaders are rounding up those who might infuriate religious extremists or trigger another spate of violence. Free speech was once the very touchstone of Western civilization and civil liberties. A person cannot really defame a religion or religious figures (indeed, you cannot defame the dead in the United States). The effort to redefine criticism of religion as hate speech or defamation is precisely what editors and writers at Charlie Hebdo fought to resist (and died defending). The West has simply fallen out of love with free speech, which is now treated inconvenient and destabilizing for society. However, those currently curtailing the free speech of others may find themselves silenced by the shifting definitions and whims of speech regulation.