Banned in Britain: The Prickly Issue of Free Speech

When I first visited Britain 58 years ago (thanks to a World Youth Forum scholarship), I was amazed at the orators in Hyde Park. They ranted and raved at will, denouncing all kinds of things, even calling for the end of the monarchy. A few people listened quietly, but most passers by paid no heed to the torrent of words. A London bobby stood stolidly nearby, unmoved by the inflammatory rhetoric.hyde park

I was told that the park’s Speakers Corner (photo at right) was established in 1872 after demonstrations there led to riots in the mid-1860s. Apparently, the Speakers Corner was seen as a place to let off steam, a kind of safety valve for public unrest. Since that time it has become a traditional site for public speeches and debate as well as the main site of protest and assembly in Britain. It is also a popular tourist attraction.

So, I was surprised to read a news item today reporting that several people have been barred from entering Britain because of the ideas they expressed. Home Secretary Jacqui Smith said she decided to publish the list to clarify what behavior Britain will not tolerate. “I think it’s important that people understand the sorts of values and sorts of standards that we have here, the fact that it’s a privilege to come and the sort of things that mean you won’t be welcome in this country,” she said.jacqui

In my view that’s absurd. What would Ms. Smith (photo at left) say if a Muslim country barred her because she didn’t wear a burqa? Surely, exposing her face violates the “sorts of values and sorts of standards” that prevail in some Muslim countries? Or maybe she should be refused entry to America because she evidently does not believe in free speech – a right enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. But what is free speech? Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes (famously) said it does not protect Americans who “falsely shout fire in a crowded theater.” What about metaphorical fire? Do rabble rousers like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Michele Bachmann and Michelle Malkin have the right to incite rebellion in America? It seems they do, as no official action has been taken to shut them up and their shouting has been extremely incendiary recently.

My interest in the news item was aroused because two American rabble rousers – radio host Michael Savage and Baptist Pastor Fred Waldron Phelps – are included in Jacqui Smith’s list of banned visitors to Britain. There’s some basis for the ban on Savage: A man who killed two churchgoers in Knoxville, Tennessee, recently was motivated by hatred for what he called, “the liberal movement.” In a letter discovered after the attack, the killer expressed frustration about the church’s liberal stance on issues. And his inspirational literature included a book by Savage (photo below, left).savage

I know of no physical violence inspired by Pastor Phelps, although his vituperation against homosexuality borders on the manic. Phelps is a paradox of sorts, crusading vigorously for civil rights on one hand while raging against sexual “deviations” on the other. His behavior gets so bizarre that he was barred from practicing law because of his antics in the court room.phelps

Personally, I would shun the company of Pastor Phelps (photo at right). And I am not about to buy Savage’s books or listen to his radio program. But I think Ms. Smith erred in banning them from entering Britain. No doubt about it: Their ideas are repugnant. And their ravings could have tragic consequences. But I am with Voltaire on this issue: I disagree with what they say but I would defend to the death their right to say it. (Well, maybe not quite to the death… But you get the idea.)