There have been a number of stories recently that should make you question the existence and extent of the so called freedoms we have now. We are told by politicians that the Human Rights Act guarantees our freedoms of speech, the freedom to protest, freedom from arbitrary detention etc.
The reality I would suggest is that we have less freedoms now than we have ever had before. That is perhaps a big statement to make, but I will try to explain it.
FREEDOM OF SPEECH?
With the right of free speech comes the certainty that others will say things we don’t like or disagree with. That is human nature, we don’t all have the same views. You may think your views are right. However the person who disagrees with you also thinks their views are right. If you try to stop somebody expressing views you disagree with, then how can you claim there is free speech.
There is not and never has been an absolute unlimited right of free speech. No right thinking person would expect a civilised society to allow someone to espouse violence or to incite acts of violence (unless you are Tony Blair and the violence is unwinnable wars in Iraq & Afghanistan). So, I am not saying there should be the right to encourage immediate violence.
Several recent stories have caused me concerns about the limitations on freedom of speech.
1. The recent killings of the 2 unarmed female police officers in Manchester shocked most of the nation. No one deserves to die doing their job. (You will recall my plugs for and riding in the Police Unity Tour to raise funds for police officers killed in the line of duty). Well one individual in Greater Manchester chose to walk the streets that day wearing a tee shirt upon which he had scrawled the phrase “One less pig – perfect justice”
The tee shirt is undoubtedly in bad taste. However free speech would say he has the right to hold and express such views irrespective of how abhorrent we find them. If his views are so abhorrent or stupid. then society will expose his for the idiot he undoubtedly is.
Our judicial system not only criminalised him for wearing this tee shirt, but sent him to prison for eight months for his "morally reprehensible actions". Who decides what is morally reprehensible? I do not agree with his views or actions but do support his right to hold those views. What next? What if next Sunday, the Magistrates and police in Sunderland decide it is “morally reprehensible” to wear Newcastle shirt at the derby match at Sunderland?
You say the sight of that tee shirt caused upset to people in Manchester, but I can tell you the Mackems get very upset at the sight of Newcastle shirts in Sunderland.
2. The case of John Hennigan is another case that causes me concern. He was jailed for 21 months for Breaching an Asbo (Anti Social Behaviour Order) which sought to prevent him denying the holocaust and making Nazi salutes. Now, I do not agree with the views of those who deny the holocaust, nor do I have any sympathy with the views of the neo-Nazis. We are jailing a man for making Nazi style salutes, yet back in 1938 our government forced the Football Association to make the England team perform a Nazi salute before a match against Germany in Berlin.
So are those players also criminals?
Another thing that John Hennigan had done was to have a swastika on his house door. Yet, during the First World War, the swastika was used as the emblem of the British National War Savings Committee. The swastika was also used as a symbol by the Boy Scouts in the Britain, and worldwide.
So just like the Nazi salute, the swastika was once supported by the British Government yet now its use is criminalized.
You may say that the use of such language and actions as described above will cause upset, but that is not a reason to prevent free speech. We need to expose the stupidity of such people, if they are indeed stupid, or is it the case that society can’t expose these things as stupid.
3. Recently Manchester United fans were slated in the media and elsewhere for a chant at a game against Wigan. The chant was aimed at their arch rivals, Liverpool (who were not there) The chant was to the effect of “you’re always the victim, you’re never to blame”. This was aimed at the Merseyside attitude that blames everyone else for whatever happens to Liverpool or people from Merseyside. The chants did come the same week as the Hillsborough Investigation Panel Report into the 1989 disaster was published. It may be bad taste, it may be a view that is contrary to the views of others, but the Manchester fans have the right to hold such views.
These are 3 situations where people are prevented from expressing views, simply because they differ from the views of the majority. Freedom of speech demands freedom of speech for everyone, not just those holding the majority view.
FREEDOM OF PROTEST?
On the last Friday of the month for the last 17+ years, cyclists have met in London and gone for a ride. This is called Critical Mass. It is an unorganised gathering that has no set route and is generally a noisy but good humoured display of cycling. There was a Court Case brought by the Metropolitan Police in 2005 when the House of Lords held that Critical Mass was not subject to the Public Order Act’s requirements to give notice in advance of the demonstration and of its route. The Public Order Act also gives the police power to order where or when a protest can take place.
Back to Critical Mass. The opening ceremony of the Olympics took place on the last Friday of July 2012. The police purported to prevent Critical Mass going north of the River Thames, even though the Olympics were some 6 or so miles away in Stratford and despite the House of Lords ruling on the use of the Public Order Act and Critical Mass as stated above.
Whilst the Olympic Opening Ceremony was taking place, some 182 cyclists were arrested near Stratford, purportedly to prevent them disrupting those going to the opening ceremony. Quite how they could be going to disrupt those going to an event which had started 1 hour before the arrests took place.
These 182 people were held without access to food, water, toilets or legal advice for around 12 hours. They had their bikes confiscated and were bailed with conditions that prevented them riding bikes in large parts of London. For many people those conditions prevented them getting to work or travelling in London. Immediately the Paralympics had ended the police released all but 3 of those arrested from their bail conditions and took no further action. It is clear there was no intention to prosecute any of them, mainly because they had not committed any offence. The police actions were to prevent people being able to protest.
When such arbitrary arrests and punitive bail conditions are imposed on those who peacefully protest, can we say we have a right to protest.
FREEDOM FROM ARBITRARY DETENTION?
Earlier this year, the European Court of Human Rights made a ruling that it is lawful for the police to detain people who have committed no crime, and have no intention of committing any crime. The court ruled in the case of Austin v The Uk that not only was it lawful to detain people in definitely, in the case of Austin it was for 9 1/2 hours. it was also lawful to hold them without access to toilet facilities, food or water.
Their crime was simply to be in Oxford Street at the wrong time. On Mayday 2001 there were a series of protests in London, some of which turned violent. The police decided to detain a large group of people in Oxford street to prevent them getting to any of the disturbances. Two of the people the police rounded up were shop workers who had popped out of the shop to get their lunch. They were held in Oxford Circus in the street for 9 1/2 hours.
Interestingly the court said this was not a deprivation of liberty! It begs the question as to what the court think a deprivation of liberty is.
If you were to treat animals this way, then you would be prosecuted for animal cruelty and we would have any number of protests from animal rights groups, but apparently treating peaceful shop assistants going to get their lunch this way is deemed to be appropriate and proportionate
So in this whistle stop look at a few situations, you will see, we do not have the right of free speech, nor the right to protest, nor even freedom from arbitrary detention. So what rights and freedoms do we have today? I’d say the evidence suggests we have far less rights than we ever had before.
Instead of mindless following what the politicians and papers tell you, think about the situation in the real world. Tomorrow it could be your views, your protests etc. that are deemed unacceptable.