Free speech and insult: Britain and America

The Americans sometimes claim to be the world’s greatest democracy and the rest of the world enjoys laughing at and mocking such comments. Their commitment to free speech is, however, at times highly impressive.

The Westboro Baptist Church campaigns against homosexuality by having protests at the funerals of American soldiers killed in the line of duty. At these protests they have banners suggesting “Thank God for Dead Soldiers”, “You’re Going to Hell” and “God Hates the USA/Thank God for 9/11”. Last week the Supreme Court threw out a civil case taken against the church by the father of one of the dead soldiers. The Court found that the Church enjoyed “Special Protection” under the First Amendment to the Constitution. Justice Roberts wrote (full judgement here):

“Speech is powerful. It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and – as it did here – inflict great pain…On the facts before us, 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.”

Meanwhile here in the UK Emdadur Choudhury was found guilty of a criminal offence under Section 5 of the Public Order Act of burning poppies in a way that was likely to cause “harassment, harm or distress” to those who witnessed it.

Choudhury was part of a crowd which disrupted the two minutes silence on Armistice Day shouting “Burn, burn, British soldiers, British soldiers, burn in hell.”
Judge Riddle said the ceasefire at 11am on 11 November 1918 had “huge significance” for Britain and marked the end of a “terrible war”.
He added: “Against that background, interrupting the two minutes’ silence by chanting ‘British soldiers burn in hell’, followed by the burning of poppies, is behaviour that is bound to be seen as insulting.”

The contrast between the American court throwing out even a civil action for insulting behaviour and the British courts where it was a criminal offence is interesting. Maybe the Americans are a greater and more tolerant democracy than we give them credit for being.

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  • Turgon. Yet another excellant blogg from you. You may have touched upon something; Even our very own Human Rights Commission had scant regard to Article 10 of the European Convention when it came to freedom of expression.

    One of their unconditional terms of contract which they set for me was as follows;

    “You will not speak or write to press or media or appeal on television in connection with the case without first securing the agreement of the Coimmission.”

    made one FoI request for period from 10th December 2002 until 9th December 2003. During that 12 month period approximately 500 people approached the NIHRC, of these; only 12 were approved for assistance. Of the 12, five were not required to sign the NIHRC’s ‘terms of offer’ but the remaining seven were. Of the seven required to forfeit their Article 10 rights only three were prepared to do so.

    The NIHRC has directly breached the Article 10 rights of at least three applicants and possibly indirectly violated the rights of at least four others by withholding assistance from them for refusing to co-operate in the forfeiture of their Article 10 rights.

    This is a complete abuse of process and authority, which afford no human rights to anyone who passed through a Diplock Court, or possibly any other. Although the above is only the data covering a one year period it is sufficient to demonstrate that further investigation of the NIHRC’s practices are necessary.

    The reason I cannot get more information is because the NIHRC has put a blanket ban on all of its staff from ever contacting me. One member of their staff did contact me informing me that he was told he would be sacked for having done so

    Strange behaviour from a human rights commission one would think.

    The HRC’s further defended its position as follows

    At present we do not consider the condition to be a contravention of the applicant’s right to freedom of expression under Article 10 (not Article 8) of the European Convention, because the applicant remains free to seek publicity about the case if he or she is willing to forego the Commission’s financial assistance. Of course if an applicant agrees to forego publicity without first seeking the Commission’s agreement this cannot be a breach of Article 10.

    Now why would a human rights commission require a victim to forego one inalienable rights so that another might be defended?

    Yes we could learn a lot from the USA when it comes to freedom of expression.

  • oracle

    Christy,

    Why did you represent yourself in court the other day?
    Can’t help remember the rule of thumb anyone representing themselves in court has a fool for a client.

  • Lionel Hutz

    So that it doesn’t damage the case.

    No breach of Article 10. They are agreeing to pay for your legal case and you consider it a breach of your rights to attach conditions. How about don’t take the money.

  • Sorry to disagree.

    In these jurisdictions I’d hope that provocative pickets at a funeral would be dealt with as public order offenders, not on any specious issue of “freedom of speech”.

    When, a few days back, I blogged on the Supreme Court judgement I was reminded of what I thought to be a precedent.

    In the First World War, the Socialist Charles Schrenck campaigned against the draft. The Supreme Court held his conviction under the Espionage Act correct and constitutional. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes delivered the magisterial opinion:

    The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic. … The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent. It is question of proximity and degree.

  • Oracle Hate to burst your negative little bubble but I achieved what I wanted to achieve. Big date set for 9 May … no lawyer got me that and all lawyers wrote my case off until I went into court myself back in January 2007…. –you should also keep in mind that Lawyers are like a good broth –rich and thick…

  • Lionel Hutz No the NIHRC never agreed to pay my legal fees –there was an instance where they would pay £10 for something if I signed their illegal contract. On Monday the best their Barrister could complain about is that I accused the NIHRC of being a “fraud and an affront to human rights” I gladly repeat that anytime.

    The question is why does a human rights commission need to bribe silence for assistance? Inalienable human rights, such as Article 10 rights, cannot be traded or bartered –one would imagine that a human rights commission would at least know that much.

    They have also no understanding of what the right to a fair trial means –talk about absolute gobshites!!! Really pathetic morons at the NIHRC.

  • oracle

    *** all lawyers wrote my case off until I went into court myself back in January 2007…***

    Well if your representing yourself in court it looks like they still are… sorry to burst your own little bubble.

  • oracle maybe you should write something you know something about –a lot of lawyers then wanted to get their hands on it –once I put it on winning course… law is a slow messy buisness –you should discuss what I have done and achieved with any legal professional –they all seem to think I have done well –including Judges I am told…. I am sorry for you if you always feel bad that posting anonymusly negative little quips is the the highest you can rise to –me I am off to better things…

  • joeCanuck

    Good going, Christy. Ignore any naysayers.

  • Zig70

    good blog again, you’re on a run Turgon.
    Free speech is an odd thing. I don’t think the americans have it, especially at airports. To me this is an example of a judge, devoid of social awareness, enjoying his ego and exercising his self blown intellect on the technical aspect of the law. The poppy decision is more grounded in what society expects.

  • Mark

    Christy , great news about your date in May , I hope it goes well .

    There is a lot of self promotion on Slugger with some posters providing links to their own sites/blogs and you can’t blame them . They have good reason ( like trying to make a living ) . It is therefore strange that Oracle would take offence when you try to highlight your miscarriage

    The difference Git is that yours in a honourable cause and an obvious miscarriage and yet some here still give you a hard time . Makes you wonder , did the mindset of some ever really change ?

  • Red Kangaroo

    Picketing funerals for any reason but particularly as a vulgar publicity stunt is not free speach, it is harassment. They threatened go to Australia to picket Heath Ledgers funeral, people were waiting with baseball bats for them. Surprisingly they decided not to go. Shame, I would have loved to see them run like dogs.

  • andnowwhat

    Well done Christy. It’s inspiring.

    BTW, not sure how this works, on May 9th do we have to buy you a drink (I’ll be washing my hair then) or (as in a hole in one in golf) you buy the drinks?

    Anyway, I really hope they ind in your favour.

    As for Oracle, clearly a “no smoke without fire” merchant. He’s not worth you replying to

  • andnowwhat

    Back on topic, it was so good to see a bunch of bikers and hippies standing up to the animals from Westboro at the funeral of the girl who was murdered at the Giffords shooting.

  • Thank you for the good wishes.

    As for freedom of expression Malcolm Redfellow cites a good quote above. Realistically though what if someone wanted to carry a tricolour up the Shankill or a Union Jack down the Falls? Would anyone doubt what would happen? Who would not say that either flag bearer was asking for it? And for what good reason would anyone want to do such a thing? Not everywhere is the time and place to express oneself.

    Freedom of expression can also be intrinsically linked with equality that prevents people saying as they please lest they breach equality laws. There would also be an issue of proportionality, ie, the insult or offence caused versus the benefit or need to make a certain statement.

  • Dread Cthulhu

    First of all, the U.S. is a democracy the same way a duck-billed platypus is a bird. It is a republic that holds democratic elections.

    Second, and this one is for Malcom, it is a free speech issue, insofar as the Westboro idiots, Democrats all, oddly enough, were morethan a couple of American football field lengths away and the fella claiming injury did so only after seeing the nutters on television. Between that, the Westboro folks identity as a church and the ostensibly political nature of their speech, they are covered by the First Amendment. What they do may be rude, crude and socially unacceptable, but it isn’t illegal.

    Of course, the folks in the US are citizens with guaranteed rights. Your example of the socialist is a bit of a canard, in so far as he was seeking to subvert the draft, not simply declaiming from a milk-crate.

    Zig: ” I don’t think the americans have it, especially at airports. To me this is an example of a judge, devoid of social awareness, enjoying his ego and exercising his self blown intellect on the technical aspect of the law. The poppy decision is more grounded in what society expects.”

    Hardly, Zig. The case has gone to the Supreme Court, where their right to protest was affirmed 8-1, with only Justice Alito dissenting, so this isn’t “a judge, devoid of social awareness, enjoying his ego and exercising his self blown intellect on the technical aspect of the law.”

    Secondly, what’s your whinge about airports? That you can’t tell security you have a bomb without getting punished?

    Red Kangaroo: “Picketing funerals for any reason but particularly as a vulgar publicity stunt is not free speach, it is harassment.”

    What thin skins you have on that side of the pond… likewise, we may have to work on some folks vocabularies…

    “harassment (either harris-meant or huh-rass-meant) n. the act of systematic and/or continued unwanted and annoying actions of one party or a group, including threats and demands. ”

    Ergo, a protest against a one-time event, even with ill intent, is not harassment, definitionally speaking. As I said, there is no right not to have your feelings hurt.

  • Dread Cthulhu @ 8:15 pm:

    I see your problem. I feel your pain. Give me notice and I’d share your banner.

    But … c’mon .. picketing and placarding a military funeral! The ultra-Islamic nutcases tried something similar in Luton: would you support that?

    Christy Walsh @ 10:31 pm (and I’m sorry I couldn’t follow the rest of his complaint) properly wondered:

    … what if someone wanted to carry a tricolour up the Shankill or a Union Jack down the Falls? Would anyone doubt what would happen? Who would not say that either flag bearer was asking for it?

    Indeed. The nearest to that, in my personal experience, is trying to engage a class of College students, as their attention was drawn to an unprepossessing, no-longer-young, female scampering nude across the sward beyond the window. Soon after, the staff from the local mental hospital covered her self-expression. Freedom of … whatever? Should the police and human-rights tribunals have been involved?

    More seriously, I personally propose “freedom of expression” applied when:

    [1] the Garda set the dogs on my close acquaintance (I was two ranks back), outside the US Embassy, in Cuba Week;

    [2] spending a night in the cells of Gourock Police Station because I paddled a canoe around USS Proteus in Holy Loch link. Yes: the US Navy pegged various vegetables and metal detritus at me as I did so. The local Constabulary felt I had exceeded my limits. And I didn’t say a word.
    [3] numerous subsequent occasions, including (I fear and trust) the TUC demo of 26th March.

    Most are experiences a long while ago, but I’ve still got the mental (and the odd physical) scars. Who was being harassed? Whose bits (more than feelings) were hurt?

    You propose a protest against a one-time event, even with ill intent, is not harassment Huh? Hint: Burntollet Bridge.

  • Tsk! insert close-italics.

  • Malcolm I am not sure the situation you refer to has not got more to do with self-delusion than self-expression especially given that there is some implied mental element to the lady in question.

    Re: “proportionality, ie, the insult or offence caused versus the benefit or need to make a certain statement.”

    Simply put people are free to object to military manuevres, installations, or wars but not agressively get in the face of a family burying one of their kin.

    Freedom of expression is also balanced with equality laws, people (which includes mourners) have a right not to be verbally abused, insulted, or harassed.

    And to add to MR’s complaint “You propose a protest against a one-time event, even with ill intent, is not harassment Huh? Hint: Burntollet Bridge.” Shouting once, maybe twice, is not harassment but arranging to meet with others with intention to partake in prolonged/repetative shouting of abusive remarks at just one funeral is harassment of those mourners.

  • Greenflag

    ‘but not aggressively get in the face of a family burying one of their kin.

    The RUC and BA did that for decades at IRA funerals . Worked very well too helped increase support for the IRA and expanded the votes for SF exponentially even to this day.

    Where there is law (NI , ROI, UK.USA etc) there is injustice and where there is no law (Somalia ) or where the law can be overridden by the state ( North Korea , Zimbabwe , China ) there is even more injustice .

    As for anyone attempting to insist on their ‘right to walk the Queen’s Highway ‘ by marching down the Shankiill with a tricolour or up the Falls with a Union Jack they should first consult with their life insurance agent to verify that there families will not be deprived of the policy payout by the insurance company invoking the ‘no payment for suicide’ clause.

  • Greenflag “The RUC and BA did that for decades at IRA funerals.” That was exactly where my argument was coming from, that was not right then, and attacking British or American Families as they bury their dead is just as abhorrent to me. Even during two World Wars both sides allowed the other to periodically collect their dead and bury them.

  • Greenflag

    ‘attacking British or American Families as they bury their dead is just as abhorrent to me.”

    At the funerals of those Irishmen who died serving in the British Army in Afghanistan & Iraq -there were NO protests neither in Co Galway/Mayo or Ballyfermot in Dublin or anywhere else . I can’t imagine even in bush baptist Belfast the wackier sects demonstrating at the funeral of a dead ex serviceman who happened to have been gay .

    Like everything else ‘free speech ‘ can be taken to extremes and the Phelps Family Church is just one example .What is the point of stomping on someone’s grave when they are dead ?

    They should ‘invite ‘ the Phelps people to Australia as Red Kangaroo mentions above and give them a ‘baseball bat ‘ welcome and then send them to one of the remaining head hunting tribes in darkest New Guinea to be re educated !

  • Dread Cthulhu

    Malcom Redfellow: “I see your problem. I feel your pain. Give me notice and I’d share your banner.

    But … c’mon .. picketing and placarding a military funeral! The ultra-Islamic nutcases tried something similar in Luton: would you support that?”

    It isn’t a matter of supporting, since I don’t. If I had the option, I wouldn’t tolerate it. The problem is is that it has been deemed political speech and, while I cannot prevent them from picketing, I sure as heck can counter-protest. My favorite was the one that Comic-con inflicted on the Westboro folks.

    http://www.urlesque.com/2010/07/23/comic-con-westboro-baptist-church-counterprotest-signs/

  • MarbellaBoy

    The Westboro lot are for sure an odious bunch of fundi nutters. But, I have to agree with this judgement, they should be allowed to say what they want, so that we all can say what we want.

    Just because we would mostly disagree with what they are saying, we have to protect our own right to speak against the mainstream opinion when we disagree sharply.

    If minority opinion can be supressed lawfully, we have no freedom, but the freedom of two wolves and a lamb voting on whats for lunch.