Anti-fascists are killing free speech

Activists who call on the state to arrest and imprison 'fascists' for their speech crimes should look up irony in the dictionary.

‘This court decision should be celebrated by all anti-racists and anti-fascists… to ensure that the only place fascism has in this century is in history textbooks.’

Are Britain’s anti-fascist groups so blinkered, so convinced that the state is on their side and that they are the bearers of the Truth, that they can make statements celebrating the curbing of someone’s free speech without even the slightest twinge of irony? That statement was made by the North Staffordshire Campaign Against Racism and Fascism, in response to the news that Michael Coleman, a former far-right British National Party councillor in Stoke-on-Trent, had been given an eight-month suspended prison sentence and 240 hours of community service for the crime of posting his thoughts on his blog.

It is true that Coleman’s thoughts were unpleasant and that not many people will share them. Writing on his blog in the aftermath of last year’s rioting in English cities, Coleman claimed that ‘London darkies have reacted with violence’. ‘The darkies have exposed their true nature in siding with criminality’, he said, before elaborating at length on his belief that the ‘darker races’ are very different to the paler races.

His nauseating comments were spotted by a Labour councillor, Joy Garner, who is currently standing for election as Staffordshire police and crime commissioner. She dobbed him in to the police. ‘I make no apology for having been the individual who initially raised this with the police’, she boasted on her website. She said the problem with Coleman’s blog posts is that the ‘overwhelming majority’ will have found them offensive. ‘I will always defend the right to freedom of speech, but as with all rights, with it comes responsibility. It can no way be accepted as responsible to use language characterising an entire race as being more predisposed to crime than others.’

So Garner will always defend the right to freedom of speech so long as the speech expresses something she finds agreeable. If your words don’t conform to what Garner considers ‘responsible’, then the debate is over and the police will be asked to knock on your door.

This is what happened with Coleman. He was summoned to a police interview and was charged with ‘intending to cause racially aggravated harassment, alarm or distress by displaying writing, a sign or other representation, which was threatening, abusive or insulting’. On Friday, at Stoke-on-Trent Crown Court, Judge Robert Trevor-Jones sentenced Coleman to eight months’ imprisonment (suspended), claiming that his words had the potential to ‘fan the flames’ in Britain following the English Riots. Clearly, in the judge’s view, Britain’s populace is so riot-prone, and its white working classes so latently racist, that one poorly written blog post could be enough to unleash violence.

The councillor and the judge’s belief that they have the right to determine what kind of speech is acceptable is chilling, and unfortunately increasingly widespread in political and media circles today. Yet how many social, scientific, political and cultural revolutions might have been halted in their tracks if earlier generations had applied the Garner logic of criminalising ideas that the ‘overwhelming majority’ find unacceptable?

One of the most depressing aspects of this all-out attack on freedom of speech and political expression is that a former far-right councillor has now been granted access to the moral high ground. The censured Coleman is posing as the defender of democratic values, pointing out that: ‘Posting an article on a personal blog could never be construed as harassment, not in a free country. This is political correctness in law form… My forefathers fought in two world wars to protect the freedom we have today. I will be damned if these hard-won freedoms will be taken away in the twenty-first century.’ He has a point. It’s just worrying that it has been left to him - a far-right activist not very interested in liberty - to make it. Such has been the left’s abandonment of the ideal of freedom of speech that it can now be co-opted by elements on the hard right.

You’d think it would be unnecessary to have to point out to liberal campaigners who want to shut down ‘fascists’ that one of the first things Hitler did when he came to power was clamp down on freedom of speech and the press. They should heed the arguments put forward by the Stoke-on-Trent daily newspaper, the Sentinel, which pointed out that ‘what was a good day for Coleman’s political opponents might turn out to be a very bad day for British liberty’.

But Garner, it seems, has no intention of taking free-speech pleas on board. If she manages to become police commissioner in Staffordshire, she plans to take a ‘zero tolerance’ approach to ‘hate crimes’ on the grounds of ‘race, religion, sexual orientation, disability, ethnicity, nationality, age, sex or gender identity’. Such hate crimes also include speech crimes, like the ones committed by Coleman. How far will such zero tolerance go? How long before fat people, gingers or ‘chavs’ are included in the list of people Garner wishes to protect from offence? There would be no offensive blog posts, no edgy jokes, no inconsiderate public banter.

Free speech is not divisible; either we have it - all of us, including people who don’t like ‘darkies’ - or we don’t. Given that free speech is the very cornerstone of a proper democracy, the criminalisation of Coleman raises an important question about who poses the greatest threat to democratic values these days: is it a moronic BNP member, or a potential police commissioner and her supporters who seem keen to punish anyone who says something they find offensive?

Patrick Hayes is a reporter for spiked. Visit his personal website here. Follow him on Twitter @p_hayes. He is chairing the debate Europe’s new far right, fear or fantasy? at the Battle of Ideas festival on Saturday 20 October.

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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