Freedom of Speech and Proscribed Organisations

politics free speech

There’s been a lot of discussion recently about the banning of the fundamentalist group “Islam4UK”. Opinions are strongly divided; many people on both the left and the right think it was perfectly acceptable, while others (at least on the left; I’m afraid I don’t know of any sensible right-wingers, or even if such a thing exists) believe that “free speech should be absolute”, or at least that Islam4UK had not abused freedom of speech (nobody had shouted “fire” in a crowded theatre, for example).

I’m in the second camp; I’ll explain my reasoning shortly, but first I want to talk about the Governmental tactic of proscribing organisations that are seen to be a threat.

What exactly does this achieve? Fundamentally, all any organisation, of any kind, is, is a group of people and a name. Proscribing an organisation does not forbid its members from associating with any other members (and indeed cannot, as freedom to associate is a fundamental human right). Therefore all it does is prevent people from using a particular name, which is completely impractical in preventing any sort of crime (al-Qaeda would be unlikely to operate under that name in the UK even if it were permitted, so why should they care what name they use?). In fact, Islam4UK is just the latest of a series of names used by what is effectively the same organisation: proscribing it is clearly achieving nothing.

If the members of Islam4UK have committed a crime, prosecute them for it. If they have not, then do not. It’s not a complicated matter. “Proscribing” an organisation is about as effective as demanding that they stop misbehaving without actually doing anything about it.

As for the wider freedom of speech issue: as David Mitchell argued in the Guardian, protecting the right of free speech even for people with whom you disagree is essential for a free society. I don’t agree with what Islam4UK have to say — but then, I don’t agree with what the other side have to say either. I doubt that living in a Muslim nation with enforced Muslim religious law would be any worse than living in a Christian nation with enforced Christian religious law (or “values”, as they’re generally called). I put up with Islamic nutters like Anjem Choudary for the same reason that I put up Christian nutters like Rowan Williams — because, loony or not, they have the right to an opinion and to express it. (Incidentally, Dr Williams: yes, I do think you’re an oddball, along with any other grown man or woman with an imaginary friend, but you’re not doing any harm so feel free to carry on.)

Nobody seriously considers preventing the BNP and similar organisations from having their say — as much as I wish they’d shut up and go away on their own, and as much as I support acting against them wherever possible, even I don’t believe that banning them outright would help in the slightest. Why, then, should they be permitted to have their say and not other, similarly extremist groups?

I’m not arguing that free speech is, or should be, absolute — as mentioned, the crowded theatre is the canonical example of when free speech should be limited. If their speech caused harm, or was likely to cause harm, then by all means restrict it; if they want to incite a mob to rampage across a city, burning and looting as they go, then lock them up. If they want to express their disagreement with the UK’s involvement in the Middle East (which, by the way, I would entirely sympathise with), then stop whinging, let them go ahead, then organise your own march to express your support for the war. Don’t stop people having their say, just have your own say back. More speech, not less, is the way forward.

This was written for week 3 of project52.