Richards: Paws Off Speech
One cannot defeat fascists by using fascism.
Almost two years ago, a Scottish man named Mark Meechan made and posted a video of his girlfriend’s pug raising its paw in a Nazi salute while he recited hateful and anti-Semitic phrases. Like many, I found his antics offensive.
On March 20, Meechan was found guilty of a hate crime under the Communications Act 2003, a draconian measure in British law that makes it an offense to use public electronic communciations networks to send messages that are “grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene, or menacing character.” This law fundamentally undermines the freedom of expression and has no place in an ostensibly free and democratic society. I was offended by Meechan’s speech — many others doubtless were as well. But being offended does not constitute meaningful harm; it is a personal, emotional reaction. It is not, in short, reason to prohibit speech, and indeed the criminalization of speech that might offend is a totalitarian and absurd perversion of the basic principles of democratic civil society.
Of course, Britain is not alone in seeking to ban speech that could be offensive. And Meechan’s antics — which he has claimed were a joke — are not alone in raising the ire of many. After the riots in Charlottesville, Virginia this past summer and after other instances of hate, many have clamored for the suppression of speech they deem hateful or offensive. The impulse is a natural one; surely our society would be better, more peaceful, more civil if neo-Nazis had no right to voice their ideas. Surely we would all profit if the Ku Klux Klan could not spew racist vitriol.
But of course, that is not what the fight over free expression is about. It’s much more foundational than that. Because if one carries the argument further, it goes like this: I trust President Donald Trump, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the institutions of the United States government generally to dictate what speech is and is not acceptable. I trust these institutions to tell me what I can and cannot say, what I can and cannot think, what words I can put forth. I trust them to collate the List of Banned Ideas and the Catalogue of Prohibited Thoughts.
Now of course, that is not how the argument is typically presented. Those on the left who seek to prohibit free expression would obviously balk at the concept of Sessions or Trump deciding what might constitute hate speech. But those are the people in power. And yes, they may be replaced, but the problem with philosopher-kings is that they cannot rule forever. Whatever wise leader might be voted into office — or, as some now hope, installed by revolution — could not rule forever. Perhaps her successor would be just as benevolent. And his as benevolent after. But eventually, another person of poor character and judgment would come to the fore, likely sooner rather than later. And when this occurs, the odious principle that the state has the right, the authority and the obligation to outlaw speech it finds disagreeable would once again be used as a hammer upon those who at the moment call to suppress speech that, justly, offends them.
No government is more committed to its ends than to propagating itself. Today, that is forgotten by a political left that hopes to ban speech it finds reprehensible or symbols it deems inappropriate. It is also forgotten by a political right that thinks restrictions on the rights of individuals — to self-identify as whatever gender they feel defines them, to love whomever they wish — will bring back the society they believe they have lost. Bans on expression of all kinds, the product of oppressive regimes spanning the political spectrum in years past and a tactic not remotely abandoned by the political left or political right, have emerged as mainstream thought in today’s societies. The same people who decry, rightly, the same American government that propped up slavery and Jim Crow and that has regularly used its might to oppress minorities now call for that same government to be clothed in the phenomenal power to dictate what speech is acceptable — and what speech is to be prohibited. Why Sessions and Trump seem to those on the left to be good arbiters of a new List of Banned Ideas and Catalogue of Prohibited Thoughts is mystifying to those of us who would not trust either of those men — and many of their fellows in this government and others — to babysit a houseplant.
These are not idle concerns. In 2009, 12 French Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions protestors were tried for hate crimes after criticizing the Israeli occupation of the Gaza Strip. Despite my personal disagreement with the BDS movement, I find the censorship of their free expression to be odious. But these are the victims of hate speech laws: not just right-wingers and fascists, but the left. The 2009 prosecution of BDS activists is not a stand-alone; indeed, it is increasingly common in Europe for BDS activists to be prosecuted. Even in the United States, which thankfully has stricter protections on free speech than most European states, a 2017 bill that would have made it a crime to support BDS efforts was advanced by numerous senators of both parties.
Sheriff Derek O’Carroll, who presided over Meechan’s trial at a court in Airdrie, said that Meechan “knew that the material was offensive and knew why it was offensive.” Certainly he did. And it was offensive. And I hope Meechan learns the error of his ways. But to ban speech simply because it offends, simply because some dislike it, is to be totalitarian. Those who would seek to prevent fascism by banning fascist expression are simply employing the fascists’ own tactics against them, and ideas cannot defeat themselves. One can beat the ideas that one does not like if one’s ideas are better, and there are myriad ideas far better than those advanced by racists and anti-Semites. But if instead those ideas are banned, they will only be lent credibility, weaken democratic institutions and ultimately make those ideas more potent and more accepted.