“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” So wrote Evelyn Beatrice Hall (although the quote is often misattributed to Voltaire). Her words capture the very essence of what it means to uphold free speech.
Indeed, the whole point of free speech is that even viewpoints that many people find deeply offensive get protection from the law. After several years of debate over cancel culture, I would have thought this was obvious to everyone. But apparently not.
Back in March, the Home Secretary described “non-crime hate incidents” as “Orwellian” and instructed the police to stop recording them. “Suella Braverman orders police to protect free speech” ran the headline in the Times. So far, so good.
Yet three days ago, she penned a letter to senior officers suggesting a much weaker commitment to free speech on her part. “It is not just explicit pro-Hamas symbols and chants that are cause for concern,” she wrote. “I would encourage police to consider whether chants such as “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” should be understood as an expression of a violent desire to see Israel erased from the world”.
A “violent desire”? Is that even a meaningful concept?
And while a chant like, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” certainly could mean that Israel should be “erased from the world”, it could also mean a whole lot of other things. For example, it could mean something like, “Palestinians should have an internationally recognised state”. The job of the police isn’t to engage in mind-reading.
Braverman continued: “Behaviours that are legitimate in some circumstances, for example the waving of a Palestinian flag, may not be legitimate such as when intended to glorify acts of terrorism”. So there may be circumstances where it’s not legitimate to wave a particular national flag? Does this apply to all national flags or just the Palestinian flag?
And how could it be known whether a particular act of flag-waving was “intended to glorify acts of terrorism”? If the flag-waver happened to be shouting “acts of terrorism are glorious”, I suppose it might, but the issue there would be the shouting – not the flag-waving.
Braverman is right to draw attention to intimidation of British Jews by pro-Palestine activists. Such intimidation is wrong and should be illegal. Yet just because many people find pro-Palestine protests at this time deeply offensive, doesn’t mean those protests – including the waving of national flags and the singing of chants that have been around for years – qualify as intimidation.
Interestingly, France has gone even further than Britain, banning all pro-Palestine protests until further notice – a blatant violation of free speech. The reason they did so is obvious: they don’t want a repeat of what happened in June/July, when thousands of young people of mostly Arab and African background rioted for two weeks following the police shooting of Nahel Merzouk.
Which illustrates a point I made earlier this year in article titled ‘The diversity trilemma’. You can pick two out of the following three: social stability, civil liberties, non-selective immigration. If you pick non-selective immigration, as France has done, you can’t have both social stability and civil liberties.
Yet as someone who values social stability and civil liberties, solving the ‘diversity trilemma’ by opting for selective immigration – thereby keeping our civil liberties intact – would seem to make a good deal more sense. Will our leaders reach the same conclusion before it’s too late? It’s not clear they will.