Democracy,  Freedom of Expression

The nature of Free Speech

I have a short guest post on Index on Censorship reflectingon the case of Brian Haw and his merry band occupying Parliament Square. It is in reply to an earlier guest post by Bibi van der Zee and a press release they published in support of Haw (which I think misses the point entirely). I think IoC are very much mistaken on this issue.

My post was a condenced version of a much longer piece which I will reproduce in full below.


The true test of free speech is that contentious speech – usually political or religious – is treated the same way as any other speech.  The government of a free people are indifferent to whether a book is a romance novel or a political treatise, a holy book or a comic book. One’s right to write, read, sell, buy, own or loan a book is not contingent on its content*.

But this implies a quid pro quo which is often overlooked. Because a free society which values the free and unfettered exchange of ideas does not differentiate between political or religious speech and other forms, so the rules applying to other forms must also apply to political or religious speech.

Here are several examples: It is illegal to fly-poster the side of a public building with advertising material.  You may be ejected from a cinema if you decide to sing sea shanties in the middle of a film. You cannot play a country and western record at top volume at 2am. All these examples restrict what can be said, expressed or broadcast, but none are forms of censorship. One is not banned from advertising one’s goods, singing sea shanties or listening to country and western music, one is merely expected not to do so in a way that damages property or disrupts other people exercising their lawful rights.

If any of these actions were instead religious or political in content, it should not alter the fact that it is wrong to express them in these ways or at these moments. If a group begins to shout about some political cause – say treatment of animals – during a film and the ushers escort  them out, they are not being censored. They are free to hand leaflets to the public outside the cinema, write letters to the newspaper, march through Leicester Square with t-shirts bearing slogans, lobby for invitations to appear on talk-shows. No one is trying to silence their ideas by asking them to respect other people’s rights to watch a film unmolested.

This is a crucial distinction. Censorship seeks to silence and suppress ideas. Telling a person to shut up at this particular moment, in this particular place, is not censorship. Doing so does not seek to suppress their ideas but to protect the rights of others to peace and quiet. All reasonable people understand this.

Censorship stops discussion of ideas and the dissemination of information supporting those ideas in a society. The censor may even ban or imprison people closely linked to those ideas. In a free society, there is no legal impediment to express views, even contentious or unpopular ones.  Some societies forbid the spreading of religious views. We, in the UK, do not. An evangelical Christian, for example, may open up churches and outreach centres in the High Street; they may hand out leaflets outside the Tube station; they may even knock on one’s door on Sunday morning to ask if one has heard the world of god. But if one asked a religious person filled with evangelical zeal to stop ringing his bell and shouting through a megaphone because other people were trying to enjoy a quiet cappuccino, would this amount to “religious censorship”? Clearly not.

What guarantees our freedom to exchange ideas freely is that political speech is not treated differently to any other speech.  Political speech should not be given special treatment by having to be vetted by a commissioner who can strike out lines with a black marker, but nor should it be given special treatment and allowed where creative, casual or commercial speech is not allowed: a librarian locking books away is censorious; a librarian saying “shh, people are trying to study” is not.

Having established this principle, we come to the case of Brian Haw, the “protestor” who has lived in a tent on Parliament Square for almost a decade, wafting from one cause to another and drawing all manner of fringe causes to his orbit. Recently I walked past and there was a wall of placards claiming the Freemasons had murdered a range of people, including the late wife of Zimbabwean Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangerai, who died in a car accident. Nevertheless, we should not be distracted by the fact that many of the views presented for our consumption by the Haw camp are quite mad. Even though they include 9/11 conspiracism, they are ideas and they are being expressed. That is sufficient.

However, I would not be allowed to install a booth providing information about the products and services of my business in Parliament Square or on any other public land. I would not be allowed to set up a small stage and host an alternative Glastonbury. The fact that none of the songs by the artists I’d line up are likely to be heard otherwise is hardly ‘censorship’. So why should Haw and his colourful troupe be any different. What gives them the right to occupy public land indefinitely?

Perhaps I’d like to protest something political. But I’d have to stand next Haw and his “9/11 was an inside job” placards which would seriously damage the effectiveness of my political points. Why should he monopolise prime protesting space? His exclusionary behaviour has made him a de facto censor.

More importantly, what ideas would be removed from the national discourse if Haw and his groupies were moved on? Is he saying anything unique? Not at all. Indeed, as someone observed, if he hasn’t made his point in 10 years, people have stopped listening. But really, the merits of the war in Iraq (from which the UK has now withdrawn) and Afghanistan are debated daily in national newspapers, on thousands of blogs, on television, with a range of views – many mirroring Haw’s – expressed freely. Mass rallies are held in Trafalgar Square and marches take place periodically through the centre of London. The 9/11 ‘Truth’ movement has books, DVDs, websites and leaflets freely available and though sane people snigger, they are not hindered in holding talks and seminars.

Quite simply, Haw’s views and ideas are not censored.

If this were his only means of making his point and he was making a unique point which otherwise might not be heard, there might be case that his protest is vital. But it isn’t. It has been discussed to death. People are bored with it. He has made his point, repeatedly, and the only reason he is still there is because of the celebrity it affords him and an apparent lack of imagination about what to do next. It has nothing at all to do with the dissemination of political ideas.

Disseminating his ideas he is free to do. He may push leaflets through our doors. He may participate in radio phone-ins. He can set up a website. He can even hold a daily protest. But what he can’t do is live in a tent on public ground indefinitely merely because he’s scrawled a political slogan on a bit of old cardboard.

When Peter Tatchell and OutRage! famously disrupted the Archbishop of Canterbry’s Easter sermon, they did so because it gained publicity and was an effective intervention. But I doubt even Tatchell would claim that the church wardens violated his rights when they escorted him and his group off the premises. I’d be surprised if Tatchell thought it was a right – rather than a civil disobedience – to wrestle the pulpit, metaphorically speaking, from an archbishop. Were it a right, more people would be doing it, and indeed many might merrily nest in the vestry in imitation of Haw.

Tatchell, on the other hand, content that the issue was now on the agenda, was content to withdraw and surrender the pulpit. If, after a decade, he was maintaining a camp in Canterbury Cathedral, I’m sure the discussion would be rather different and rather less productive.

And let’s face it, Haw’s protest is not productive. It is repetitive to the point where it is just white noise. He can’t shut up because he’s afraid not for his ideas (which are expressed daily my millions) but for himself: that he might be an irrelevance without his tent and his bit of cardboard.

Quite frankly, I am alarmed that Index on Censorship has taken such an unsophisticated view of this case, and indeed, is enabling the self-destructive behaviour of a possibly very sick man.

I feel so strongly about it, that I’ve written an article on the subject. But I most emphatically do not have the right to express my opposition by setting up a permanent camp outside Index on Censorship Chair Jonathan Dimbleby’s house.

Or do I?