We often discuss how defending free speech often means defending those who we find thoroughly grotesque or offensive. In that sense, Nicholas Brock, 52, is the ultimate personification of the price we pay for free speech. The neo-Nazi was given a four-year sentence for what the court called his “toxic ideology” based on the contents of the home he shared with his mother in Maidenhead, Berkshire. In my view, the only thing more troubling than Brock’s hateful views is the decision to criminalize the holding of such views. It is an example of the continued erosion of bright-line protections of free speech in the United Kingdom and other European countries. Judge Peter Lodder QC declared “I do not sentence you for your political views, but the extremity of those views informs the assessment of dangerousness.” That is a fine distinction that allows for sweeping criminalization of political viewpoints.
When police searched Brock’s room they found a chilling montage of hateful symbols as well as weapons.
That is included SS memorabilia, a Ku Klux Klan recognition certificate as well of a picture of him armed in a balaclava in front of a swastika flag. They also searched his computer and found downloaded videos of ISIS beheadings and unedited video footage filmed by far-right terrorist Brenton Tarrant shooting 51 people in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand in March 2019.
In other words, Brock is the disgusting individual with Nazi and violent fantasies. However, he was charged under the nebulous criminal provisions used to punish those with offensive views rather than actions. Police charged him with three counts of possession of material likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing a terrorist act.
However, Lodder at least had the honestly to make plain that Brock was being jailed for his views. Lodder lambasted Brock, declaring
“[i]t is clear that you are a right-wing extremist, your enthusiasm for this repulsive and toxic ideology is demonstrated by the graphic and racist iconography which you have studied and appeared to share with others… Your bedroom was decorated with SS memorabilia, a framed Ku Klux Klan recognition certificate in your own name was hanging on your wall….You stored documents such as the offensively titled ‘N***er owner’s manual’, you had video clips of Ku Klux Klan discussions about race war, of cross-burning, of decapitation, and a propaganda video of Combat 18, a race-hate neo-Nazi group. The police discovered racist ‘memes’, a copy of the Christchurch mosque murderer’s livestream video and a news clip of the proscribed terrorist group National Action. In addition, your stored photographs of you wearing a balaclava and holding firearms in poses reminiscent of the Combat 18 propaganda, and of you in company with other neo-Nazi sympathisers who were making a Nazi salute.
The degree of your devotion is indicated by your decision to cover your upper body and arms with tattoos of symbols associated with neo-Nazism, SS death head skulls, swastikas and of individuals infamous in Hitler’s Germany.”
What is most striking is that Lodder makes clear that it is harboring these views, not disseminating them or taking action that is the crime.
Detective Chief Superintendent Kath Barnes, Head of Counter Terrorism Policing South East (CTPSE) acknowledged that others might collect such items for historical or academic purposes but Brock crossed the line because he agreed with the underlying views:
“From the overwhelming evidence shown to the jury, it is clear Brock had material which demonstrates he went far beyond the legitimate actions of a military collector…Brock showed a clear right-wing ideology with the evidence seized from his possessions during the investigation….We are committed to tackling all forms of toxic ideology which has the potential to threaten public safety and security.”
The prosecution erases any clear line between criminal conduct and criminal thoughts. Brock gathered these materials and videos from public and legal sources. It was his collection — and clear agreement with the underlying ideologies — that led to his prosecution. The same material might be permitted for someone who collected such material for research or historical interest.
Free speech dies in the absence of bright lines of protection. The different treatment afforded faculty creates an obviously chilling effect on free speech. Avoiding the chilling effect of potential punishment for speech is a core concern running through Supreme Court cases. For example, in 1964, the Supreme Court struck down the law screening incoming mail. A unanimous court, Justice William Douglas rejected the law as “a limitation on the unfettered exercise of the addressee’s First Amendment rights.” It noted that such review “is almost certain to have a deterrent effect” on the free speech rights of Americans, particularly for “those who have sensitive positions:”
This case is part of a general erosion of free speech in the United Kingdom. We have been following (here and here and here and here and here and here and here) the worsening situation in England concerning free speech. The problem is trying to draw such lines rather than embracing free speech as protecting not just popular but unpopular and even hateful speech. Once you start as a government to criminalize speech, you end up on a slippery slope of censorship. What constitutes hate speech remains a highly subjective matter and we have seen a steady expansion of prohibited terms and words and gestures. As noted in a prior column, free speech appears to be dying in the West with the increasing criminalization of speech under discrimination, hate, and blasphemy laws.
The Brock case raises comparisons to the German laws criminalizing Nazi symbols and literature. It has proven ineffective in stopping neo-Nazis. Indeed, it curtails the very right that is most effective in countering extremist viewpoints. It is free speech that allows people of conscience to contest the flawed and hateful ideas of bigots. Germany has proven the fallacy of changing minds through threatened prosecution. While I am obviously sympathetic to the Germans in seeking to end the scourge of fascism, I have long been a critic of the German laws prohibiting certain symbols and phrases, I view it as not just a violation of free speech but a futile effort to stamp but extremism by barring certain symbols. Instead, extremists have rallied around an underground culture and embraced symbols that closely resemble those banned by the government. I fail to see how arresting a man for a Hitler ringtone is achieving a meaningful level of deterrence, even if you ignore the free speech implications.
Most of us share Judge Lodder’s disgust and contempt for Brock and his viewpoints. Free speech allows us to counter such speech. However, people who believe in free speech do not have the luxury of favoring free speech for those with whom we agree. We must defend free speech itself rather than any given speaker. The Brock case is chilling not because of the existence of a whacked down neo-Nazi in Maidenhead, Berkshire but because of his prosecution for being a whacked down neo-Nazi in Maidenhead, Berkshire.