Ceramic pig watch: Offensive speech in Britain
posted at 6:25 pm on June 11, 2012 by J.E. Dyer
Ever since the case of the offensive ceramic pigs in 1998, the British have been assiduously refining their methods for dealing with offenses to Islam. Earlier this year, Bruce Bawer at Frontpage recounted the tale of David Jones, who was going through security at Gatwick Airport when he made a stray comment that brought down the full force of the Speech Police on his head (emphasis added):
[A]ccording to the Telegraph, “he spotted a Muslim woman in hijab pass through the area without showing her face” and, in a “light-hearted aside to a security official who had been assisting him,” said: “If I was wearing this scarf over my face, I wonder what would happen.”
Kapow! Poor Mr. Jones spent the next hour or so being lectured about what he was and was not allowed to say by an airline official, a police officer, and several security guards, one of whom identified herself as a Muslim and told him she was “deeply distressed” by his comment. Of course it was Jones who was being unjustly harassed and who had every right to feel “deeply distressed,” but, as he later pointed out, “Something like George Orwell’s 1984 now seems to have arrived in Gatwick airport,” so that it is now considered reasonable for individuals in positions of power to claim that they are being caused “distress” by the very people whom they, in an outrageous abuse of power, are in the very process of tormenting. The cop on the scene even instructed Jones “that we now live in a different time and some things are not to be said.”
It now turns out that not only are things not to be said, but no one else is to be allowed to know what was said when someone is jailed for saying them.
A Mr. Darren Conway of Gainsborough, Leicestershire, was sentenced in March to 12 months in prison for the crime of posting “offensive” posters about Mohammed and Islam on the window of his apartment. According to the Gainsborough Standard, Conway said he printed the posters from images at Facebook, which suggests he found them online through his connection with the British National Party (BNP). Presumably the images are no longer available, or there is no way to verify which ones he printed out. At any rate, the British authorities and the media offered no details about the posters after the police removed them.
A number of British citizens were naturally interested in what was on the posters, since they got a man convicted and sent to prison. It does seem reasonable for the people to know what will get them locked up. “Offensive to Islam” could mean a lot of things, and no one should have to guess what’s considered actionably offensive. One report (cited at the Frontpage link, previous paragraph) indicated that one of the posters depicted a rally of the English Defence League, but it offered no particulars about any of the other posters and how they were offensive to Islam.
So Edgar Davidson, a British blogger, made a Freedom of Information request to the crown prosecutor for details about the offensive posters displayed by Conway. The prosecutor declined his request last week, offering this explanation:
There is a substantial public interest in many circumstances in protecting from disclosure information gathered for the purposes of a criminal case. The defendant in this case was prosecuted as he publically displayed the offensive posters referred to in your request. As displaying this material was proven to be a criminal offence in a criminal court, and the graphic and violent images depicted in these posters caused offence in the neighbourhood in which they were displayed, there is a very strong public interest in these articles not being distributed any further.
Davidson invokes the adjective “Kafkaesque” in describing this interaction. Bruce Bawer cites a public statement by Ms. Judith Walker of the crown prosecutor’s organization, and parses it as follows:
We all owe Walker a debt of gratitude, for in this statement she takes us right to the heart of the matter, giving us a crystal-clear picture of how these people think. To place in the window of your home slogans and pictures that add up to a criticism of Islamic ideology is not to exercise your freedom of speech; it is to commit an act of “harassment” that has no place “in a tolerant society” and that must therefore be punished.
Note Walker’s chillingly Orwellian understanding of the concept of freedom, which has its roots not in Magna Carta or the Enlightenment but in sharia. When she says that it is “essential that everyone in our community is free to live without harassment,” she means nothing more or less than this: that it is the right of Muslims in Britain to live in a society free of criticism of their religion. And when she says that “anyone who jeopardises that freedom will face prosecution,” she means this: that any British citizen who thinks that he enjoys the right under British law to criticize anything, including Islam, is mistaken; he does not have any such right; and if he acts as if he does, he will be incarcerated.
We don’t know what was on those posters in Darren Conway’s window. If he printed them off Facebook, they probably weren’t mind-bendingly offensive, but more on the order of juvenilia. They were on Facebook long enough for him to find them. In any case, Conway was convicted of a “religiously aggravated public order offence”; he was not convicted of making threats, of incitement, or of soliciting criminal activity. He was convicted, in other words, of exercising free speech.
It’s worth noting that the jail sentence under national law is in fact the point here. The posters may well have been offensive to a Muslim, and I would very likely sympathize with a Muslim who was offended, as I would with a Christian offended at repulsive depictions of Jesus or screeds against Christianity. If I saw virulently anti-religious posters on someone’s window in my neighborhood, I might well check with the city to see if there was anything that could be done about them. Local ordinances can often be brought to bear in these matters. I don’t necessarily have a problem with Conway’s posters being taken down, especially in a residential area, if due process of law is followed. If the landlord simply didn’t want them there (I doubt Mr. Conway owned his flat), that would be good enough to justify their removal.
But that’s not how Conway’s case was handled. He was sent to jail, for something that should at worst have been a matter of violating a local ordinance, or failing to comply with the terms of his lease. On the other hand, his infraction may not have involved either of those things. We may agree that not everything should be displayed in a window, but we also may not have laws prohibiting everything that might be. This case is clearly about punishing speech.
How long before the United States reaches this stage? That’s a good question. The independence of the 50 states gives us a running start in the other direction, as this article by Jerry Gordon at the New English Review indicates. Most of the piece is about developments in Tennessee, where the director of the state Department of Safety and Homeland Security met with resistance from the legislature when he set up a “Muslim advisory council” that included organizations with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood
But Gordon also recounts the ways in which the federal government – e.g., the Holder Justice Department – has put its finger on the scale and committed itself to overriding the state authorities. A key example cited by Gordon is the controversial Murfreesboro Islamic Center, whose construction was halted in late May by a county judge, after the petitioner demonstrated that the community had not been given notice of the center’s planning in accordance with the law. This is a rule of law issue, not an issue of “Islam”; the construction of churches is halted by lawsuits pretty often (see this one in Leesburg, VA, this one in the Hamptons, and this one on Oahu, along with this saga of a synagogue in Los Angeles, and another in New Haven, CT).
As Gordon reports, however:
The USDOJ under Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez in charge of civil rights litigation acted promptly to threaten action in federal court seeking to overturn [county Judge] Corlew’s rulings on the grounds that it constituted religious discrimination.
Rushing to find “religious discrimination,” when the breach cited by a judge is both valid and unrelated to religious discrimination, is the kind of distortion of law we have to be on the watch for. Tennessee has a right to enforce its due process for building permits, even when it’s Muslims who want to build an Islamic center. The law should not assume Muslims are being discriminated against when it is applied to them equally.
But back in the UK, Mark Thompson, director-general of BBC, made it clear in an interview in February that whatever the government may do, the BBC will be treating Muslims and Islam differently. He was quite open about treating Christians will less sensitivity than Muslims, while revealing that, when it came to “other” religions, “producers had to consider the possibilities of ‘violent threats’ instead of polite complaints if they pushed ahead with certain types of satire.”
Mr. Thompson said: ‘Without question, “I complain in the strongest possible terms”, is different from, “I complain in the strongest possible terms and I am loading my AK47 as I write”. This definitely raises the stakes.’
That’s one way of looking at it. Another is that the stakes are raised most effectively by Western media and Western governments taking the pole position in the corruption of our laws and our beliefs about protecting freedom and equality.