10 Times Britain Said ‘No’ To Free Speech
In the United States, freedom of expression, thought, and assembly are protected by the Constitution. But gaze across the pond and you quickly learn that many other countries take a less absolutist approach to this most fundamental of human rights.
To the authoritarian, laws surrounding hate, blasphemy, terrorism, and political dissent are a gold mine of free speech–stomping weapons. From the atheist bloggers of Bangladesh to the anti-government protesters of Venezuela, many around the world live in fear of persecution, imprisonment, and even death. With its undying reverence for free speech, the United States remains the envy of the “unfree world.”
But there is something going on with America’s close ally, Great Britain. The birthplace of parliamentary democracy and freedom of expression appears to be undergoing a crisis of confidence. The government no longer trusts its citizens to say the right things. The famous expression attributed to Voltaire—“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”—no longer holds merit in Britain. “Hate speech is not free speech,” comes the chorus of disapproval.
Now UK police are arresting around nine people per day for posting offensive messages on social media. Thousands of Brits are detained and questioned for their online activity every year, and the government has introduced a hate hub to crack down on mean tweets and Facebook posts.
For Britain, free speech is but a distant memory.
10 Offensive Singing
Singing the wrong tune in Britain can land you in prison. That’s exactly what happened to Scott Lamont in 2015. Lamont was overheard singing “The Billy Boys” on his way to a soccer match in Scotland. The song glorifies a Protestant gang led by Billy Fullerton in the 20th century. The “Boys” were known for their violent confrontations with rival Catholic gangs. Today, Rangers Football Club fans often sing “Billy Boys” as a means of toying with their main rival, Celtic.
“Billy Boys” was by no means the only prohibited song. Ditties relating to the IRA terrorist group, the Irish Famine of the 1840s, and the Glasgow slums were all banned. The “Sheep Song,” “Super Killie,” and “Gorgie Boys” are just some of the criminal croons.
One Scottish member of Parliament, Roseanna Cunningham, considered taking the nation’s anti-bigotry laws a step further. She warned soccer fans that singing the UK national anthem, “God Save The Queen,” could constitute a punishable offense.
Cunningham did not take kindly to certain religious displays, either: “I’ve seen hundreds of Celtic fans making the sign of the cross in a manner I can only describe as aggressive.” She continued: “It’s not in itself offensive. But in the circumstances of Celtic and Rangers fans meeting each other on a crowded street, it could be construed as offensive.”
Lamont ended up in court under Scotland’s Offensive Behavior at Football and Threatening Communications Act 2012. The Rangers fan pleaded guilty to uttering the sectarian chant and was given a four-month stint behind bars.
Sheriff Paul Crozier said Lamont’s actions “could have led to horrendous violence.” He went on to explain that the jail sentence would send a “message” to all soccer fans.
In 2012, police officers arrested soccer fan Dion McLeish. The 19-year-old Celtic supporter was accused of singing a pro-IRA song at a local match. The authorities maintained that McLeish’s conduct was “likely to incite public disorder.”
As fate would have it, the war on vocal cords was soon to end. In 2018, the Scottish Parliament voted to repeal the bizarre law. At the time, politicians criticized the legislation for having no impact on reducing sectarianism.
9 The Garbage Truck Joke
A Sunderland man landed in hot water after making a crass joke about a vehicular accident. In 2014, a garbage truck plowed into a horde of pedestrians in Glasgow after the driver passed out. The tragedy led to the deaths of six people.
In the aftermath of the crash, Ross Loraine took to Facebook and posted the following insensitive message: “So a bin lorry has crashed into 100 people in Glasgow eh, probably the most trash its [sic] ever picked up in one day that.”
Following public outcry, a swarm of cop cars descended upon Loraine’s household. “We saw the police cars and have been told it’s about a message to do with the deaths up in Glasgow,” said one neighbor. The 19-year-old immediately handed himself over to the authorities. Northumbria Police arrested and cautioned the social media miscreant for issuing a “malicious communication.”
8 Snap Dogg Rap
Chelsea Russell decided to honor a young boy killed in a traffic accident. Little did the young woman know that her noble deed would constitute a prosecutable offense. Taking to Instagram, the Liverpool resident posted the following lyrics from a Detroit rapper named Snap Dogg:
“Off a whole gram of molly, and my b—h think I’m trippin’. Now I’m clutchin’ on my forty, all I can think about is drillin’. I hate f—k s—t, slap a b—h n—a, kill a snitch n—a, rob a rich n—a.”
Drugs, guns, murder, the N-word—all crammed into one verse. Russell’s eulogy was certainly unorthodox, and the British state agreed. Police Constable Dominique Walker, an officer of the hate crime unit, stumbled across the post and decided to take action. “As a black woman, I found the words offensive and upsetting. The words are offensive to both black and white people,” explained Walker.
The boys in blue charged Russell for posting the “grossly offensive message.” Her sentence was increased, as the message was thought to represent a “hate crime.” She was slapped with a curfew, a £500 fine, and an eight-week community order.
The judge said there was no place for such language in polite society, adding: “The lyrics also encourage killing and robbing, so are grossly offensive.”
7 Quoting The Bible
When it comes to freedom of religious expression and LGBT rights, British lawmakers have yet to square the circle. A conflict of ideologies occurred when a Christian preacher discussed parts of the Bible with a gay teen.
Preacher Gordon Larmour was “spreading the faith” in Irvine, Scotland, when the teen asked: “What does your God say about homosexuals?” The pious man talked about the Book of Genesis, Adam and Eve, procreation, and all that religious stuff. The pastor added: “Don’t forget to repent your sins, and remember that there is a Heaven and Hell and a Judgment Day.”
The teen was unhappy with the assertion that God created Adam and Eve to make children. Unable to cope with the interaction, the devastated young man called the police.
The cops arrested Larmour for his slight. He was taken into custody and investigated for a breach of the peace and “threatening or abusive behavior.” After months of intense scrutiny, a court judge decided that Larmour was innocent.
There has been a big debate in Britain over the criminalization of wolf-whistling and cat-calling. Big-name publishers have written hot takes on why criminalization is the only way forward. “Wolf-whistling is a type of sex crime—of course, it should be criminalized,” stated one headline. “Wolf-whistling is just the start—harassment is not harmless,” howled another.
Nottinghamshire police already consider wolf-whistling, cat-calling, and misogynistic language a hate crime. Any unwanted physical or verbal contact will also be classified as a hate crime. Nottinghamshire men might want to reconsider those saucy texts, too, as the same goes for unwanted or uninvited messages.
In the first case of its kind, West Mercia police questioned a builder for repeatedly wolf-whistling at a female passerby. Poppy Smart, a marketing coordinator, said the builder’s behavior was humiliating and disrespectful. The woman eventually dropped the case after the building firm disciplined the offenders.
London’s Metropolitan Police Service is now liaising with other forces to see if it will follow suit. Lawmakers are introducing similar sexual harassment laws in France, which would see men slapped with fines for wolf-whistling and cat-calling.
5 Quoting Churchill
Former Prime Minister Winston Churchill had some fairly robust views on Islam. Apparently, simply reiterating these views could see Brits clapped in irons.
In 2014, the chairman of the now-defunct Liberty GB party read passages from Churchill’s book The River War to a handful of onlookers. The political candidate, Paul Weston, was arrested after a member of the public called the cops. He was then taken to a police cell and detained for around five hours. A spokesperson for Hampshire Police said Weston was accused of religious/racial harassment and had failed to comply with a dispersal order.
A Muslim Council of Britain rep offered the following appraisal: “Our faith has often been criticized and attacked, so we are used to it. The question is, will Mr. Weston’s action lead to a credible violent attack against Muslims in this country? We leave that for the courts to decide.”
The courts did not get an opportunity to decide, however, as the police dropped all charges against Weston.
4 Nazi Pugs
It is a curious decision when a man dedicates a significant amount of time to conditioning a dog into a sieg heiling furball. But, in a free world, that should not matter. YouTube comedian Mark Meechan (aka Count Dankula) wanted to prank his girlfriend. So, in 2016, he trained his partner’s pet pug to raise its paw in response to certain cues.
Every time Meechan said “sieg heil,” the dog would appear to perform the Nazi salute. The pug would also respond excitedly to the phrase “gas the Jews.” In reality, the dog was merely responding via Pavlovian conditioning to words that it was associating with dog treats.
Meechan recorded the stunt and posted it to YouTube. The clip propelled him to Internet fame, generating over three million hits. But the long arm of the law was not amused. The 30-year-old was arrested and charged with posting a “grossly offensive” communication.
Sheriff Derek O’Carroll had little sympathy for Meechan: “A joke can be grossly offensive. A racist joke or a grossly offensive video does not lose its racist or grossly offensive quality merely because the maker asserts he only wanted to get a laugh.”
Meechan was found guilty of breaching Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 and fined £800. The judge slammed the YouTube video for being “grossly offensive,” “menacing,” “anti-Semitic,” and “racist.” The judge even touched upon the subject of freedom of speech: “While that right is very important, in all modern democratic countries the law necessarily places some limits on that right.”
One assumes the judge has never heard of the United States of America.
The affair attracted the attention of a few British comedians, including Jonathan Pie, David Baddiel, Stephen Fry, Romesh Ranganathan, and Ricky Gervais. “A man has been convicted in a UK court of making a joke that was deemed ‘grossly offensive.’ If you don’t believe in a person’s right to say things that you might find ‘grossly offensive,’ then you don’t believe in freedom of speech,” tweeted Gervais. He also posted a pic of his own cat, Ollie, morphing into Hitler reincarnate.
3 Mocking The Police
We now know that the British police and judiciary take “offensiveness” very seriously. But what happens when you mock the police? Well, it turns out that the West Yorkshire Police are no fans of criticism.
In 2018, the force’s Twitter page provided an update on a low-level drug bust. The cops posted a photo of a paltry amount of cannabis that they had seized from one unsuspecting perp, prompting considerable derision online.
“Hope you manage to nail Pablo Escobar this afternoon,” one Twitter user teased.
The cops felt insecure, unappreciated, and bereft of love. “Unfortunately, we have had to ban a number of people from using this page today,” read a police statement. “Being insulting, abusive, or offensive can and will result in a prosecution under the Malicious Communications Act 1988.”
In other cases, the UK cops are taking offense on other people’s behalf:
“Please be aware that we will continue to monitor comments on social media, and any offensive comments will be investigated,” wrote Police Scotland on Twitter.
“Although you may believe your message is acceptable, other people may take offense, and you could face a large fine or up to two years in prison if your message is deemed to have broken the law,” stated Cheshire Police.
“Posts considered to be malicious will be recorded, and police action may follow,” tweeted Dyfed-Powys Police.
“You can’t hide from us if your [sic] spewing abuse from behind a computer screen. Our boys & gals in blue will find you #999WhatsYourEmergency,” posted Wiltshire Police.
“We will not tolerate hate crime in #London, and we will continue to support victims. There is a difference between an opinion and abuse,” said the Met Police on Twitter.
“We would like to make it clear that we will not tolerate the posting of offensive remarks, and we will take all reasonable steps to remove them and take appropriate action,” declared a Northumbria Police spokesperson.
Finally, Surrey Police went with: “[We] will not tolerate language used in a public place, including on social media websites, which causes harassment, alarm, or distress.”
2 Insulting An Olympic Swimmer
To many Brits, Olympic swimmer Tom Daley is a national treasure. Starting his illustrious career at just 14 years old, the synchronized diver went on to win numerous sporting events and bagged a number of Olympic medals.
Daley finished fourth in a diving competition at the London 2012 Summer Olympics. However, it came as quite the shock when the following tweet appeared on the Twitter account of a Welsh Premier League soccer player: “If there is any consolation for finishing fourth, at least Daley and [his diving partner] can go and bum each other #teamHIV.”
The player in question, Daniel Thomas, alleged that someone else had sent the tweet using his mobile phone. Nonetheless, the Port Talbot Town player apologized for the incident and said the tweet did not reflect his views. Clearly unconvinced, the police arrested Thomas for sending a homophobic message. He was questioned and released on conditional bail.
The case was eventually dropped after Keir Starmer, the director of public prosecutions, deemed that the tweet was “not so grossly offensive that criminal charges need to be brought.” Starmer said that the tweet was a “one-off offensive Twitter message [that] was not intended to reach Mr. Daley.”
Tom Daley told the Crown Prosecution Service that he did not feel the incident was worthy of prosecution.
1 A Bridge In Wales
The people of Wales are a proud lot. While many associate Wales with rugby, steeped valleys, choirs, daffodils, and Catherine Zeta-Jones, the nation is also renowned for its distinctive language. Although most Welsh people speak English, around a fifth of the country speaks Welsh (aka Cymric). Much of the country’s signage is written in both English and Welsh. So when a columnist for The Sunday Times poked fun at the Welsh language, the rainy nation went a little ballistic.
An intense debate was raging over the name of a bridge in Wales. Should the Second Severn Crossing become the Prince of Wales Bridge? A disgruntled journalist, Rod Liddle, explained his reasons for not caring:
“The Welsh, or some of them, are moaning that a motorway bridge linking their rain-sodden valley with the First World is to be renamed the Prince of Wales Bridge. [ . . . ] They would prefer it to be called something indecipherable with no real vowels, such as Ysgythysggymlngwchgwch Bryggy.”
It is worth noting that one town in Wales is genuinely called Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwyllllantysiliogogogoch. But the final blow came when Liddle said that the bridge’s name was immaterial so long as it “allows people to get out of the place pronto.”
Liddle’s article caused much consternation. The veteran writer was accused of “Cymrophobia” (hating everything and anything Welsh). The Independent Press Standards Organization (IPSO) received a flurry of complaints—well, 19 (that’s a lot in Wales). Members of an outraged public called the police. And Welsh politicians were talking about mounting legal proceedings. “[It] begs the question what legal defense we have in situations like this,” said Plaid Cymru MP Saville Roberts.
The police conducted an investigation and concluded that Liddle had done nothing legally wrong. However, the North Wales Police and Crime Commissioner said that he would ask the press regulator to reprimand Liddle before urging others to do the same.
Meanwhile, a Welsh language group said the column espoused a “colonial attitude.” And the Welsh Language Commissioner, Meri Huws, called for language hate laws: “A few months ago, I joined with others to declare that action is needed to stop these [insulting] comments and stated that legislation is needed to protect rights and to prevent language hate.”
In response, Liddle said that he was surprised that adults were “demanding that the police and the government must take action because someone made a short joke about vowels.”