Fightin' Words

Posted: Sep 28, 2013 6:02 PM

Hate speech laws around the world are used to curtail freedoms of groups as diverse as Christian street preachers and famous perfume makers. American respect for free speech—even if it’s offensive— is unique. Kevin Glass reports for Townhall Magazine.


In 2009, Democrat Rep. Linda Sanchez of California introduced the Megan Meier Cyberbullying Prevention Act, a piece of legislation designed to protect children from online harassment but which, in reality, had more sinister consequences. The legislation would have criminalized speech that could “cause substantial emotional distress to a person” through different means of communication, including but not limited to “e-mail, instant messaging, blogs, websites, telephones and text messages.” Fortunately, the bill never made it out of the House.

It’s easy to see how giving law enforcement the authority to crack down on communication that merely causes emotional distress would be scary. Substantial emotional distress is a very subjective concept, and the American culture of victimhood is strong.

Protection for free speech in America is also strong, however. And, it turns out, uniquely American. Developed nations around the world have very strong speech codes that, in recent years, have targeted particularly expressive citizens with increasing frequency. Western Europe is home to some of the strongest speech codes in the world, and for other outrageous examples, America could merely look to its northern neighbor—Canada has had what it calls the “Human Rights Commission,” charged with protecting civil rights and ferreting out hate speech.

Americans should be proud of their long heritage of valuing free speech. They won’t be arrested for insulting, voluntarily or involuntarily, their fellow citizens. They enjoy this freedom more than their contemporaries in other liberal democracies, yet it’s a freedom that requires the utmost vigilance to maintain. While there are movements in other countries to repeal some of the most egregious violations of freedom of speech, there are those within the U.S. who prefer to sacrifice speech on the altar of political correctness.

Big Ben Is More Like Big Brother

In London earlier this year, American street preacher Tony Miano was arrested after preaching from the Bible about homosexuality. He was not arrested for street preaching—a legal activity on the streets of London—but for the content of his speech. He was in violation of Section 5 of the Public Order Act.

The Public Order Act of 1986 criminalized “us[ing] threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour, or ... display[ing] any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby.”

Note the layers of discretion left up to law enforcement. There need not be a person actually insulted nearby, merely a person “likely” to be distressed nearby. Moreover, this gives law enforcement the ability to determine what might be “threatening, abusive or insulting.” Under this law, people in the United Kingdom can be arrested or detained, even if they’re ultimately cleared, by overzealous law enforcement officials who cite those vague terms of abuse or offense.

Miano is far from the only person to be arrested under the Public Order Act. An unlikely alliance between London’s Christian Institute and the National Secular Society helped fuel a campaign called “Reform Section 5” in May of 2012 and publicized the plight of Britons under that section of the act. While counterintuitive, it makes sense that Christians and atheists would team up. Atheist speech offends Christians. Christian speech offends atheists. Neither side wants to be arrested for merely airing their viewpoints.

...continue reading in Townhall's October issue.





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