President Trump’s recent visit to the UK was riddled with backlash. Whether it was due to his immigration policies back across the Atlantic or his more controversial remarks whilst visiting, he brought out protesters in massive numbers. According to the Evening Standard, as many as 250,000 people turned out in London alone to protest. (1)
The centre-piece of the resistance was a long awaited balloon of the hot-headed President. Having cost £5,000, the balloon was undoubtedly a visual representation of the protesters’ opinion of Trump – a infantile, enraged simpleton. (2)
It goes without saying that mocking leaders is absolutely a free speech issue. If we weren’t able to satirise our leaders, it’d be the twenty-first century equivalent of blasphemy laws. So long as nobody’s life is being threatened, we should have the right to protest leaders however we see fit – whether that’s through a balloon or otherwise.
What struck me as interesting however, is how the balloon was represented on social media and in the media. The Independent hailed it as a sign of ‘Britain’s commitment to free speech’. (3) The writer even included the line, “What better way to show that England is the home of free speech?” (4)
Did we finally get a First Amendment?!
Oh…no, never mind…
I’ve written about free speech issues in the UK before, so this article could be considered the equivalent of beating a dead horse with another dead horse. However, I think the issue is increasingly relevant and worth writing about – particularly in light of all the steps our government has taken to censor unpopular opinions.
The UK is granted freedom of expression in Article 10 of the Human Rights Act. However, it carries multiple exceptions – some reasonable and some not so much. Of course, any speech that threatens the safety of a individual must be taken seriously. But I still can’t buy into the idea that ‘sending any article which is indecent or grossly offensive with an intent to cause distress or anxiety’ is really worth police time. Anything can make you feel anxious or distressed – hell, Twitter does that for me on a regular basis.
It’s all well and good to say we have freedom of speech simply because we’re not carted off to jail for insulting Theresa May’s shoes. But freedom of speech must extend to cover the opinions we’re not too fond of.
The Mayor of London Sadiq Khan gave the protesters’ permission to fly the balloon, which I absolutely agree with on the grounds of freedom to express political opinions. However, in saying that, “We’ve shouldn’t curtail freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom to protest, simply because it may offend somebody”, Khan comes across as a massive hypocrite. (5)
In April 2017, he launched The Online Hate Crime Hub, which would work to stamp out online abuse. That sounds all well and good – nobody wants death threats online to become acceptable behaviour. But let’s face it, a lot of people are going to land in trouble for saying things that couldn’t be perceived as threatening behaviour in any sane society.
We’ve already seen it happen.
Mark Meechan was arrested for teaching his girlfriend’s pug to do a Nazi salute – as part of a Youtube prank (Read my article ‘Freedom Of Speech-Under Attack?’ for more on that). (6)
Chelsea Russell was convicted of a hate crime after posting lyrics to a Snap Dogg song that included the N-word. I’m not kidding… (7)
Between 2010 and 2016, 2,500 Londoners were arrested for online hate speech – thanks to The Communications Act 2003, which defines illegal communication as “using public electronic communications network in order to cause annoyance, inconvenience or needless anxiety”. Breaking this law results in a six month prison term. (8)
But England is the home of free speech remember! The Independent said so!
The article I just cited seems to also imply that ‘whore’ and ‘slut’ should be considered hate speech. Meaning that somebody could be arrested for calling a woman a slut – the haters on Kim Kardashian’s Instagram better watch out!
Aren’t you glad police time was spent on this? You know….instead of tackling knife crime….child abuse….terrorism. Nope! Chelsea Russell and her rap lyrics on Instagram were the real societal threat!
Ultimately, the balloon is a symbol of free speech. But just as it won’t dent Trump’s mammoth size ego, it will do virtually nothing to save freedom of speech in the United Kingdom.