If you have the chance to enact one law make it the First Amendment… the stipulation that ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble…’ is the best guarantor of freedom yet written.
You Can’t Read this Book
In May 2006 Christopher Hitchens took part in an excellent debate opposite Shashi Tharoor, the topic of which was ‘freedom of speech’. Commenting on the plight of a man apparently arrested and charged for waving a copy of his book, The Missionary Position, outside the Catholic Evidence Guild, Hitchens said the following: “Get used to it and you’ll live under it. Resist it now, while it can still be opposed. [There] is a Police State coming that says ‘we are there to protect religion and all religions’. And it’ll all be done in the name of niceness; it’ll all be benign. Can you bear it?” It has been ten years since this reflection, and the evidence of the accuracy of Hitchens’ prediction seems to be borne out more each day and with every relevant headline. We are welcoming this creeping Police State with open arms and are aiding and abetting it in its fruition.
Bedfordshire Police have brought a case to the High Court, where they seek an injunction against the political party, Britain First, which if granted, would ban the organisation from any Mosque within England and Wales, and from the city of Luton entirely. At the outset I would like to declare that I have no personal interest in this matter. I am not a member of Britain First, nor am I a sympathiser. Many of the organisation’s policies are antithetical to my political philosophy and my principles of liberty and secularism. For example, Britain First calls for the introduction of a “comprehensive ban on the religion of Islam” and this includes banning the publication of the Koran and Hadith; it calls for the “restoration of capital punishment for paedophiles, terrorists and murderers”, and the introduction of “chain gangs to provide labour for national public works”. A nation governed by Britain First would be an abjectly awful one under which to live. While I do not defend the organisation’s policies, I acknowledge that seeking to diminish its right to expression and assembly is to seek to do so for myself; to seek to infringe upon the liberties of one is to do so for all. I’ll refrain from invoking a quote often erroneously attributed to Voltaire himself, but will simply say that I would defend the same rights of any person or any organisation.
Chief Superintendent David Boyle of the appellant constabulary said the following in defence of the force’s actions: “The injunction is being sought due to concerns that their presence in these areas could increase the possibility of disorder and anti-social behaviour.” He went on: “I would like to be clear that it is not our intention to ban any demonstration and we will always facilitate peaceful protest where possible.” Is the conflict between these two statements as evident to you as it is me? In any event, the force’s case will be that they anticipate that if Britain First conducts its protests in largely Muslim areas, there will be crime and disorder. I need not rely on any falsehood in this claim for my position that the injunction should not (at least in full) be granted. I do not doubt that if the organisation is allowed to frequent Luton when they wish that there might be a level of disorder which follows them and correlates to where and when they demonstrate.
In 1999 the case of Redmond-Bate v DPP went before the Queen’s Bench Division of the High Court. The circumstances of the conviction had been the following: R-B was one of three Christian women preaching from the steps of a cathedral. Complaints were made about them and a police officer warned the women not to stop pedestrians. The officer returned later to find a crowd had gathered and that some of its members were now angry with the preachers. The officer feared a breach of the peace and asked the women to desist. When they refused, they were arrested. R-B was later convicted of obstruction. Lord Justice Sedley quashed the conviction, noting that “a key question for the constable was, from whom was the threat coming, the preachers or the crowd; because it was there that the preventive action should have been directed.”
So in relation to Britain First and the injunction, the question to ask, and the issue to which I hope the Court dedicates much attention, is ‘from whom does the direct threat of violence and disorder originate?’ Does it come from Britain First, or from the people whom it provokes? If there is evidence that Britain First initiates and engages in violence during its demonstrations, the injunction should be granted. I would offer no argument in defence of the organisation as I would in effect be arguing for its right to assault as opposed to its right to protest. But if the evidence suggests that there is instead a likelihood that any violence or disorder will originate from members of the communities through which Britain First intends to march in demonstration, then it is there that the police’s attention and measures should be directed. You may preach from any corner or walk through any public street demonstrating sentiments that I find wholly offensive. So long as I have the freedom to ignore or argue against you, I will never appeal to an authority to protect my feelings. If I find what you say so offensive that I resort to violence in response, the fault and responsibility are entirely mine. If the state could have intervened it would only have been right to have done so to prevent my violence, not your speech or assembly. To say that the communities through which Britain First can be so expected to reliably resort to violence in response to protest against, or criticism of, their ideology is perhaps the greatest indictment on those communities; and if the injunction is granted in full, and Britain First is banned from an entire city, the High Court will have indicted those communities exactly thus. To say that those communities should be treated differently, and not expected to observe the same liberalism or respect for pluralism and criticism, is bigotry of the worst and most demeaning kind. But as Hitchens said, it will come and be done masquerading in the name of “niceness”.
Since the publication of the Macpherson report, which found that the Metropolitan Police were “institutionally racist”, police forces have made their best efforts to be, and to be perceived as being, at the pinnacle of progression for equality and respect for diversity. Forces shout loudly about their backed inclusion and their officers’ and staff’s participation in ‘Pride’ events across the country whilst on duty. In this virtue-signalling show of solidarity, the police have entered the political sphere, perhaps irreversibly. It should never be a matter for the police to express an organisational opinion on matters of morality which do not constitute crimes. For example, the debate on gay marriage, and specifically whether it is right for churches to be compelled by the State to marry people that it does not wish to, is still going on. In fact, Section 29JA(2) of the Public Order Act 1986 specifically stipulates that “any discussion or criticism of marriage which concerns the sex of the parties to marriage shall not be taken of itself to be threatening or intended to stir up hatred.” The participation of a uniformed police officer in a demonstration is tantamount to the State’s public bodies and civil services dictating what they believe on matters of politics and much divided opinion.
Britain First may well have a legitimate grievance with regards to how the organisation’s members have been dealt with. Its leader, Paul Golding was convicted and fined for breaching a ban on “wearing a uniform with political objectives” contrary to the Public Order act of 1936, a stated case of which in 1975 found that the court contended that even a beret on its own may constitute a “uniform” for the purpose of the Act. The Act provides no protection to anyone wearing a political uniform other than the possibility of a prior permit from the Secretary of State, who deciding that on a special occasion, that the wearing of the uniform may not invoke a risk of public disorder, may allow it. The wording of this legislation renders it a catch-all law, of which everyone has the possibility to fall short; yet the State decides for political reasons which people and organisations will be pursued by it. This – the law by which it is impossible to abide, and by which all are therefore criminalised – is a pillar of totalitarianism.
Mosques are private buildings, and as such I do not in principle see an issue with a court ordering an injunction which prohibits a person or group from entering them. If I ran a group of private clinics which performed abortions, and my buildings were frequently entered by members of a Christian group which protested within them and attempted to convince my clients that they were committing a sin in choosing to terminate their pregnancies, this would constitute harassment. The means of the group’s communication will have infringed on the liberties of my staff and clients to ignore their message. As a Mosque is a private building, who enters and remains within it is entirely a matter for the building’s owners or controllers, and they have protection under Common Law to use reasonable force in ejecting a trespasser. If Mosques are frequently entered by a specific group of people who are not welcome within them, I believe that it is entirely reasonable for a court to grant such an injunction which pre-empts the necessity for the frequent lawful ejections which will undoubtedly follow. However, the case should be brought by the Mosques themselves, not the police. The same arguments would not apply to a prohibition of a group from the vicinity of a Mosque, however. While the Mosque itself is privately owned, the street on which it stands certainly isn’t. Should Britain First wish to protest and assemble outside a Mosque, and to attempt to hand out Bibles to attending Muslims, they should absolutely be allowed to. Muslims may find the practice offensive, and we could unanimously decide that it is in fact disrespectful; but respect should never be a matter for the State to enforce. Again, such a thing would be but another pillar of totalitarianism.
To seek to ban Britain First from an entire city is one the one hand, a demonstration of the State’s wish to divide us and treat us differently according to arbitrary labels; and on the other, it is an ironically welcome yet unthinking show of the State’s apparent acknowledgement of the failure of multiculturalism. Banning the organisation from Luton, based solely on the demographic make-up of the city, and specifically the proportion of Muslims who reside there, is the antithesis of any values of equality or respect for diversity with which the police might wish to be associated. Bedfordshire Police are wishing to segregate the United Kingdom based on the proportion of residents within a particular city who believe certain things about certain books; this is disgraceful. Should the injunction be granted in full, we will have taken a giant step towards the apartheid that will come if we fail to see the illiberalism of the faux-liberals who are now the apologists for maladaptive religious practices and segregationist political manifestations such as Sharia.
We are coming perilously close to witnessing the full realisation of the Police State which Hitchens envisioned. Examples of our sheep-like acquiescence, and even our wish, to bring about such a circumstance abound. We should take heed of his words and resist this creeping, State-enabled Theocracy now, while it might still be opposed.