Free speech under fire after Finsbury
So, after the arrest of Darren Osborne, the man who drove a van into a group of Muslims outside Finsbury Park Mosque on Sunday night, the police have now made a second arrest.
For what, you may ask? After all, the police said they believed Osborne acted alone. Have they now found he had an accomplice, someone who helped organise the attack, or played a role in radicalising/lobotomising Osborne? Not exactly. Thirty-seven-year-old Richard Evans, the second man to be arrested in relation to the attack, did have a familial connection to events on Sunday – he is the son of the owner of Pontyclun Van Hire, which leased the van to Osborne on Saturday. But Evans was not arrested for any practical involvement, unwitting or otherwise, in Sunday’s attack. He was arrested for saying something on Facebook. Or better still, he was arrested for mouthing off on Facebook.
‘Glad I’m not running the van hire’, he burbled. ‘The police wouldn’t like what my answer would be. It’s my dad’s company I don’t get involved it’s a shame they don’t hire out steam rollers or tanks could have done a tidy job then.’ And for that stream of deeply unpleasant nonsense, he was arrested ‘on suspicion of displaying threatening, abusive, insulting written material with intent that is likely to stir up racial hatred’.
It’s a nasty comment, all right. And unfathomably stupid, too, which, given that Evans’ Facebook name, ‘Richard Gear Evans’, is a misspelled allusion to movie star Richard Gere, is hardly a surprise. But a criminal offence? Only if idiocy is against the law.
But then, under current hate-speech legislation, idiotic statements can be against the law. Daft, unpleasant thoughts can get you arrested. Saying that you wished Osborne was driving a steamroller or a tank into the group of Muslims on Sunday night can land you in jail.
Which is idiotic in itself. Sure, it was an ugly thing to say, but what exactly is the point of arresting someone for saying it? As spiked has argued countless times, the only way to tackle such an ugly statement is to argue against it. Just prohibiting it, and criminalising the speaker, allows the sentiment to fester, even to gain a dangerous allure.
And as for the idea that it is ‘likely to stir up racial hatred’ – how empty-vessel-like are people assumed to be if a poorly written splodge of Facebook bile can supposedly turn them into frothing Islamophobes? Alternatively, if there are people reading it with an animus towards Muslims, arresting someone for articulating it is not going to soften that animus. If anything, it’s more likely to harden it.
Criminalising speech in this way is not just an affront to freedom of expression – it’s also spectacularly ineffective.
Tim Black is a spiked columnist.
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