England has seen the rise of calls for speech prosecutions, including calls from powerful politicians for crackdowns on insulting or offensive comments. 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). The rapid decline of free speech in England has been both chilling and frightening for civil libertarians as the country appears to have abandoned this once defining right of Western Civilization. Now, a Manchester man reportedly has been arrested and sentenced for making “grossly offensive” comments about Muslims on Facebook. Stephen Bennett, 39, (who has a Muslim mother-in-law and sister-in-law) has been sentenced to 180 hours of unpaid work and a 12-month community order for expressing his views.
Bennett reportedly went on to the Greater Manchester Police’s Facebook page and posted comments like “Don’t come over to this country and treat it like your own. Britain first.” The next thing the father of seven knew, there were police at his door. He was accused of violating a law pushed through by former Prime Minister Tony Blair that makes it a crime to “send by means of a public electronic communications network a message or other matter that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character” or “cause any such message or matter to be so sent.” It is a ridiculously ambiguous and vague law that seems calculated to chill speech. One has avoid speech that others might find offensive or menacing.
There is no shortage of people who want to shutdown the speech of others and claim such offense. Various people complained to the police about Bennett’s comments and one Muslim witness at his trial warned that his comments could be a “potential tool for radicalization.” (It was an ironic point since this law is itself a form of extremism in the denial of a core civil liberty). Another witness claimed that a remark about Asian women was “offensive to all women.”
Recorder Andrew Long at sentencing readily adopted the tone and authority of the public censor. He noted that it is “impossible to believe” that such comments did not reflect his personal views or that he was “at least a sympathizer” with those who expressed such views. He denounced Bennett for risking the “stirring up racial hatred in the present climate” and “playing into the hands of the enemies of this country.” Really? Criminalizing speech plays in the hands of our enemies. ISIS and extreme Islamic countries like Iran seek the denial of free speech, particularly in criticizing religion. I am not afraid of ISIS, which remains on the wrong side of history in resisting liberty. I am far more afraid of those in the West who are rolling back on civil liberties in the name of defending them. Long was “fighting” extremism by yielding to it. The risk of “stirring up” people sounds like another example yielding to the “heckler’s veto” in silencing those with whom we disagree. Long condemned Bennett for expressing his views and said “Your remarks damaged the community in which you live, and it’s the community that you must repay.”
I am not particularly interested in Bennett’s views. While I find many views to be offensive, I believe that the cost to criminalizing speech is a far greater danger for free countries. England is a tragic example of how speech regulation can become insatiable with ever widening areas of prohibited speech. What is incredible is that people exercised their right to denounce Bennett’s views on Facebook, but that was not enough. Some of these people wanted him arrested for uttering views with which they disagreed. It appears that you are allowed to hold unpopular views but you are not allowed to utter them in Great Britain.