It’s fashionable to say, “I’m intolerant of intolerance.” This refrain can justify all manner of censorship. If any undesirable opinion can be plausibly cast as “intolerant,” then nearly any action to stifle that speech (instead of refuting it) is not only justified but desirable. We see this logic play out in American colleges and universities, where sprawling bureaucracies routinely try to micromanage speech, as well as in efforts to manage the culture by both blue and red state legislators.
It’s no surprise, then, that younger Americans believe it is more important to feel welcome and safe, especially online, than it is to be able to speak their minds freely. Many no longer believe the freedom of speech covers offensive speech. To see what this looks like in action, we only need to turn to the example of the United Kingdom, which enacted a censorship regime only to reverse course.
In 1986, the UK passed the Public Order Act. Section 5 of the act made it a statutory offense to use threatening, abusive, or insulting words or behavior, or to display any writing, sign, or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive, or insulting, within the hearing or sight of a person who is likely to feel harassed, alarmed, or distressed as a result. Got that? In effect, it became illegal to offend someone in the UK. Countless citizens were brought to court, many found guilty, because they made some pillock feel barmy or gormless.
There was sufficient British commitment to the principles of democracy to spur a countermovement. At the launch event for a campaign to reform Section 5 in 2012, Mr. Bean actor Rowan Atkinson joined the fray, giving a rousing speech and a call to action. He called the right to express oneself freely the “most precious thing in life,” second only to food in your mouth. Atkinson has never been arrested for insulting someone, but he attributes that to his fame, which protects him from charges which might befall the less famous.
Atkinson spotlighted three particularly ludicrous cases: one in which a man was arrested for insulting a police horse, another in which a teenager was arrested for calling the Church of Scientology a cult, and a third in which a cafe owner was arrested for displaying passages from the Bible on a TV screen. The first two cases were only dropped once they had gained public notoriety, and the police were worried about being publicly embarrassed. In the process, people were arrested, questioned, and taken to court – three things which are themselves enough to chill speech, even if the case is ultimately dropped.
Atkinson sums up the problem with the law nicely: “The clear problem with the outlawing of insult is that too many things can be interpreted as such … merely stating an alternative point of view to the orthodoxy can be interpreted as an insult.” Rather than censorship, what should be done instead? Atkinson says: “More speech …The strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression, it is more speech.”
The campaign to amend Section 5 was ultimately successful. Reforms passed in 2013 dropped language that outlawed insulting speech. The UK’s trial and error with outlawing offensive speech should be an enduring warning to those in the United States who want to enact similar restrictions.