Imagine that you just finished posting a particularly heated status on Facebook – the news that evening made you incredibly angry and you vented on social media. A few weeks later, the police knock on your door and arrest you for that post.
That’s the new reality people in the UK face under laws made to punish “hate speech.” UK citizen Nigel Pelham is currently serving a sentence of 20 months for violating this very law – over posts he made on Facebook – in yet another sign that free speech is dying in Europe.
Police arrest an angry man over his Facebook rants
UK police charged Nigel Pelham with eight counts of “publishing threatening written material intending to stir up religious hatred against Muslims” over an eight-month period in 2015.
There is no argument that Pelham’s speech was hateful:
Pelham, 49, said on a Facebook post that Britain should institute a “bomb a mosque day,” and advocated that people “put a Muslim on top of a bonfire.”
After initially denying all charges, Pelham appeared in court to plead guilty to all charges. He’s currently serving a 20-month prison sentence for his Facebook posts.
The police issued a statement, condemning the hate speech and urging the public to report anyone else who violated the law:
Nigel Pelham used Facebook to express some truly offensive views, with no understanding of how serious his actions were. Many people see social media as a harmless and sometimes faceless place to air their opinions, however I hope this shows we will not tolerate this type of behaviour and will act when someone reports their concern about what someone is posting.
Citizens are urged to file anonymous reports online through the police website for “obscene online content” to the Internet Watch Foundation.
Pelham’s speech is not “incitement” under American law
Had this case been tried under American law, Pelham’s charges would have been thrown out. The most common retort to this point, from the left, is that Pelham’s speech constitutes “incitement” and should be punished.
They’re referring to the case Brandeburg v. Ohio, a 1969 case where the Supreme Court held that the Government couldn’t punish speech unless it was “directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.”
The problem with Pelham’s comments is that they failed to incite or produce any imminent lawless action. He made these statements over the course of eight months – there’s nothing imminent about those words.
In order to be considered imminent, the courts say that your speech has to prove threatening right there on the spot. It has to be something where you’re calling for everyone to kill people immediately after your words. Pelham’s words don’t fit this standard.
His posts were also rants on Facebook, which means it’s highly unlikely he was going to produce the actions his speech called for. Was his speech hateful? Absolutely; but it’s not punishable – nor should it be.
The spread of hate speech laws is censoring and chilling free speech rights
For a free speech advocate, these laws are terrifying to the core. Police are actively criminalizing so-called “hate speech” people post on the internet – with multi-year sentences attached to these crimes.
The US and UK approach hate speech vastly different. The UK has explicit statutes governing what a person can and cannot say – with proposals that go so far as to censor a “lack of respect for the rule of law.”
Europe as a whole has followed the UK’s lead on this, with progressives advancing censorship laws across the European peninsula. The highest profile case was for Dutch politician Geert Wilders, who had a long and protracted legal battle over whether or not he was guilty of criminal hate speech and incitement against Muslims.
Speech codes and censorship are going so far that now European parliaments now have the ability to censor speakers during a debate to stop any hate speech infractions. The result is that language is being reshaped into government speech – all words and ideas must pass through government approved censors.
The US Constitution does not support the censorship European liberals want
Despite influences from European liberalism, American liberals have failed to advance any case for hate speech in the United States.
The US Constitution, however, does not support any ban on hate speech. And to drive that point home, the Supreme Court underlined the point in a new unanimous decision called Matal v. Tam:
But no matter how [the government’s argument to the court] is phrased, its unmistakable thrust is this: The Government has an interest in preventing speech expressing ideas that offend. And, as we have explained, that idea strikes at the heart of the First Amendment. Speech that demeans on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, age, disability, or any other similar ground is hateful; but the proudest boast of our free speech jurisprudence is that we protect the freedom to express “the thought that we hate.”
Protecting abhorrent speech isn’t always pleasant, but it prevents government control of all speech. That’s part of the cost of living in a free society.
Abhorrent views like Pelham’s should be shamed, ignored and ostracized by private citizens, not the government.