More on English Arrest for Distributing an Anti-Homosexuality Pamphlet

(the incident I discussed in the Suppression of Dissent post late last week): This purports to be the leaflet that led to the arrest; I have no reason to question that assertion, and I will rest the remainder of the post on that assertion, though please do let me know if the assertion is mistaken.

I certainly don't agree with the moral views expressed in the leaflet, but my sense is that this is probably about as calm, polite, and reasoned a way of expressing those views as is possible. Of course many people would still find it offensive, because of the ideas that the speech expresses; but preventing such speech really does requiring suppressing the ideas, rather than just insisting that they be expressed in less incendiary ways. If the distribution of such speech is illegal in England, then English law has indeed gone a long way to undermining the ability to discuss such moral matters. (I should note that the place of distribution, a place where many listeners would be expected to be quite offended, doesn't strike me as changing this result: The ability to express one's views that certain behavior is wrong must include the ability to express those views to people whose behavior one is trying to change, at least subject to rules that give each individual recipient the power to stop further individualized speech to them without interfering with speech to others.)

Why does this matter? Well, I think that generally speaking people ought to be free to express their views even in harsh, insulting ways. I think the "God Hates Fags" picketers' speech shouldn't be suppressed because of its content, morally repugnant as I find both its form and its content. (Whether content-neutral restrictions on picketing in front of funerals are constitutional is a separate matter, which I discuss here.)

Nonetheless, there's a case to be made that it's possible to try to suppress incendiary language -- such as vulgarities, epithets, and the like -- while still allowing people to express whatever ideas they want. I tend to agree that such rules generally can't be set up in ways that are legally administrable, and that coming up with such rules, especially ones enforced through the criminal law, may lead to the restriction of ideas and not just the form in which they're expressed. (Compare Justice Harlan's view in Cohen v. California with Justice Stevens's view in the FCC v. Pacifica Foundation plurality.) Yet it's conceivable that such a rule might be acceptable (and necessary) in at least certain contexts; at the very least, it can't be as easily condemned as rules that really do try to suppress speech because of the ideas it expresses, rather than the form in which it's expressed.

But here English law can't use this defense; nor can it use another occasional defense of bans on "extremist speech," which is that little is lost to public debate from suppressing the speech of the violent fringe (again, I don't accept this defense myself, but it's one that sometimes is made). Here English law is being used to suppress speech because of its ideas, and not because it's put in a needlessly rude or vituperative way; and it's being used to suppress speech that expresses a longstanding aspect of an important school of moral thought (even if we think that aspect is morally mistaken).

That makes the restriction, I think, particularly dangerous and particularly noteworthy. I would oppose such criminal laws even if they were applied to cruder expression, and to expression of less traditionally mainstream views. But even those who are open to restrictions on form that supposedly don't interfere with the communication of ideas, or to restrictions on extremist views that supposedly don't interfere with important discourse within a broad mainstream of views, should be troubled by what's going on in this case.

Thanks to John the Methodist (Locusts & Honey) for the pointer.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. English Charges Against Anti-Homosexuality Leafletter Dropped:
  2. More on English Arrest for Distributing an Anti-Homosexuality Pamphlet
  3. Suppression of Dissent::