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The price of Free Speech in the USA and the UK

By Dark Politricks

Two cases in the news recently have shown the difference between how Free Speech is treated on both sides of the Atlantic.

Whilst many people across the world are watching with dismay as the USA seemingly slips further and further into the kind of futuristic militaristic police state that Hollywood feature films are made of a recent Supreme Court ruling has shown that at least the First Amendment is being protected even if the others are being decimated bit by bit.

At the centre of the case lies a group of defendants that very few people would by sympathetic towards. The case revolves around the awful Westboro Baptist Church who chose to spend their time picketing the funerals of soldiers holding up placards claiming that God is punishing them and their country for crimes such as tolerating homosexuals and abortions.

Documentary after documentary has found the Westboro Church members to be a sad, delusional and very sick crowd of people and I cannot think of many people who wouldn’t be upset, disgusted and outraged if these people turned up outside a family members funeral with placards claiming that their death was due to biblical vengence.

The case in question involved a lawsuit brought by the father of a dead Marine, a Mr Snyder, who filed a lawsuit in March 2006, accusing the church of intentionally inflicting emotional distress when they picketed his sons funeral by holding up signs that said  “Thank God for Dead Soldiers”, “You’re Going to Hell” and “God Hates the USA/Thank God for 9/11″.

Mr Synder initially won $11m at trial in 2007 but this was later reduced by another court to $5m. However the Church appealed against this judgement and both a federal appeals court in Virginia and the Supreme Court agreed that their protest was covered by the First Amendment and therefore the constitution shielded them from any kind of liability and the case was thrown out on these grounds.

However much the facts of the case in question may sicken readers to the core and however much sympathy one might have with the father of the dead Marine who lost his $5 million compensation award we must remember that at the centre of this debate is the right to speak your mind without fear of reprisal by the state.

Very rarely do court cases that deal with the First Amendment involve nice and easy black and white situations that invoke sympathy with the defendant. As the famous saying goes:

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Whilst it would be hard to find anyone who could agree with the tactics that the Westboro Baptish Church and others of their ilk use to make their voices heard Americans should be proud of the fact that they still live in a country in which the Supreme Court still has the ability and will to make decisions that upkeep the constitution no matter how unpopular they might be in the court of public opinion.

In the present day it is quite heartening to see such a decision but it is also a shame when one realises how few of these types of decisions are being made and how much the constitution has been eroded over the years.

Compare this victory for free speech with a similar case in the UK in which a group of Muslim protesters picketed a welcome home parade for soldiers just back from Afghanistan. The anti-war protesters staged a demonstration in which they called the soldiers rapists, murderers and baby killers.

Whilst these claims are technically true, see this, this and this the group were arrested under the catch all “Public Order Act” and convicted of using threatening and abusive words towards the soldiers.

The Public Order Act 1986 is one of the most insidious pieces of legislation ever created and is used by cops all over the country every day to arrest people that have spoken to them the “wrong way”. Just look at Section 5 and 4 of the act and ask yourself how many times you might have been arrested for committing any of these crimes.

Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986:

“(1) A person is guilty of an offence if he:

(a) uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour, or
(b) displays any writingsign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting,
within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassmentalarm or distress thereby.”

Section 4 of the Public Order Act 1986:

1) A person is guilty of an offence if he –

a) uses towards another person threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or
b) distributes or displays to another person any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting,

with intent to cause that person to believe that immediate unlawful violence will be used against him or another by any person, or to provoke the immediate use of unlawful violence by that person or another, or whereby that person is likely to believe that such violence will be used or it is likely that such violence will be provoked.

2) An offence under this section may be committed in a public or a private place, except that no offence is committed where the words or behaviour are used, or the writing, sign or other visible representation is distributed or displayed, by a person inside a dwelling and the other person is also inside that dwelling.

In the majority of cases the person that is insulted, threatened or abused by the words of another is a uniformed police officer and there is so much leeway in the law that it means it’s impossible to tell what level or strength of language is considered “offensive” enough to get yourself arrested One drunken girl may shout obscenities at a cop for the best part of an hour and get nothing more than a free lift home or verbal telling off whilst another member of the public may tell a cop to F-off and end up with a court date.

I have no doubt that if the Westboro Church protesters had carried out their protest in the UK they to would have been arrested for similar public order offences and it is a shame that our own judiciary weighs more heavily the imaginary or real offence that one person may experience over the right of another to speak their mind. No-one deserves the right not to be offended but the Public Order Act is often used by our Police and authorities to ensure that the plebs keep in line and and especially keep quiet in public.

The US Judge who ruled in favour of the Westboro Church said that no matter how much pain was caused by the actions of the church;

“we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker. As a nation we have chosen a different course – to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate.”

Compare that to our own judge, Lord Justice Gross, who ruled that the right to freedom of expression was important but that

“the focus on minority rights should not result in overlooking the rights of the majority”

Two wolves and a sheep deciding what to have for dinner in other words.

The five Muslim protesters tried to argue that under the Human Rights Act they had a right to freedom of expression but their appeal was rejected by the High Court and their actions were ruled illegal because they went beyond legitimate protest and were personally abusive to the troops.

So there you have it, two pretty similar cases both involving protests by minority groups that could be considered offensive by others. In the USA it was judged okay for a bunch of loons to picket and harass a family during one of their lowest moments making unprovable claims about an imaginary man in the sky hating their dead loved ones due to unrelated and irrelevant acts.

However here in the UK a protest based around provable claims is considered a public order offence because the perpetrators of the crimes that have killed and maimed thousands of women, children and men were upset at being called out on their decision to fight an unpopular war rather than be hero worshipped as I’m sure some of them might have been expecting.

So whilst many people might disagree with the Westboro Churchs actions and rightly so, the Supreme Court judgement should be seen as a positive sign that things are not quite so bad as certain people think they are.

It is also clear that the judiciary in the USA still values free speech and is another sign that here in the UK we are desperatley in need of our own Bill of Rights to enshrine those liberties and freedoms that many people probably still believe they have until a cop or Judge abruptly changes their mind.

It is important for all of us to remember that once we start limiting what can and cannot be said or written because others maybe offended we might as well give up any hope of winning the phony war on terror. What is the point of the war if we are going to basically do the terrorists job for them by just handing over one of those treasured freedoms they apparently hate us so much for.

Lets all try to remember that the next time a TV talking head or right wing newspaper starts spouting off about evil Muslim / Christian protesters or anti war demonstrators. Free speech does not have a price tag and we shouldn’t ever attempt to put one on it no matter how much sympathy we may have with the families of the funerals being picketed or the disabled soldiers marching through our towns.

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