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.