The latest little breeze in a tea-thimble is the revelation that there are groups on Facebook saying things that some other people don’t like. Yes, I know, that’s all most shocking and we are all channelling our inner maiden aunts in response. Except, of course, to merely do that is to miss the importance. For free speech, the very definition of it, is the ability to say things which other people don’t want to have said. If everyone already approves of it then it’s approved, not free, speech, isn’t it?
A controversial pro-Conservative Facebook group has been exposed as containing Islamophobic, homophobic and racist comments about public figures including Sadiq Khan, Diane Abbott and anti-Brexit campaigner Gina Miller.
Comments include demands to “expel the London mayor” and “send back” immigrants, while another post states that “Islam should be banned”. There are also homophobic remarks about Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson, posted after she announced that she was pregnant.
Many of these things may be impolite but should free people in a free country be able to say them? My answer would be yes, of course, you bloody fool. It’s the very definition of freedom to be able to run your mouth off. That people watch what they say can be many things, but people watching what they say because the law so insists isn’t a place where freedom is residing now, is it?
There’s a minor point to make here:
As of Friday morning, the group listed ten sitting Tory MPs and 25 Tory councillors amongst its membership, including grassroots favourite Jacob Rees-Mogg. There is no suggestion that any of the MPs posted inappropriate material, and several have told the Observer that they had no knowledge of being signed up and have since left after being alerted to the group’s content.
Well, yes, you can be added to a Facebook group without you agreeing to it. You do usually get a notification that this has happened but it’s most certainly not a positive action that you have to take to end up in a group.
But to the larger point here. What is it that people may or can say in public?
All have become or remained members of the group since July 2017, when the BBC ran an article on pro-Conservative Facebook groups that reported the Conservative Debating Forum’s targeting of Shadow Home Secretary, Diane Abbott for its “harshest criticism”. The article gave an example of one post which used an image to liken Abbott to an orangutan.
Although the image mentioned by the BBC now appears to have been deleted, our investigation discovered other explicit images featuring Abbott that were racist and sexist in nature. Other comments made racist comparisons between the Shadow Home Secretary and a gorilla, and called for her to be deported.
Anti-Brexit campaigner Gina Miller is also the subject of racist abuse in the group describing her as “a damned foreigner” and an “immigrant pipsqueak”, with comments calling for her to “go home” and threatening that she will “get what she deserves”.
In one of many attacks on Jeremy Corbyn, a moderator posted a comparison between the Labour leader and Hitler that referred to his “fascination with Islam”.
Attacks in the group are not only reserved for political opponents of the Conservative Party. Ruth Davidson’s pregnancy announcement triggered a wave of homophobic comments, with posters suggesting her pregnancy was “sick” and represented “degeneracy”. Others stated that “homosexuals shouldn’t raise children” and said “you make your filthy bed and you lie in it”. Another referred to diver Tom Daley’s announcement he was having a baby as a “form of child abuse”.
I’m certainly willing to agree that few of those things are polite. And as long as people are complaining about that that’s just fine. For as PJ O’Rourke has pointed out, free speech means the right to say anything you damn well want and also the duty to take the consequences.
We do, it is true, have a couple of legal constraints. Incitement to immediate violence seems a fair enough restriction, as do libel and or slander. Other than that there shouldn’t be any restrictions. But of course there are restrictions around hate speech, which is precisely what has brought us to this pretty pass. The objectionable, thick or hateful being objectionable thick or hateful can now be interpreted as a crime not something to be dealt with in the more normal and liberty preserving form of shunning or shouting back.
One final point, there’s nothing wrong with this at all:
The Mayor of London Sadiq Khan is a regular target of the group’s anti-Muslim sentiments. One referred to Khan as a “smug moron”
I’m really pretty sure that smugness and moronity aren’t defining elements of Islam or being Muslim. So I can’t see that a being an anti-Muslim sentiment. But it is worth noting that such phrasing is expressly protected in English law. We do have those laws against libel and slander but mere vulgar abuse cannot be considered to be such. It’s thus actually part of speech which has that specific protected status.
The answer is, as ever, that we should have less government and more communal and community rule in our lives. Take the law back to what it was, libel and immediate incitement to violence only. Everyone else gets to speak their mind – or as is more likely, their absence of it – and we get to react to what is said. How else should free people be constrained in their actions or words?