Driven by data; ridden with liberty.
At the Conservative Party conference, Home Secretary Theresa May restated her desire to introduce Extremist Disruption Orders. These court orders would allow the police to vet the Facebook and Twitter posts of extremists, as well as preventing them from speaking at public events. These orders would be applicable to people engaged in “harmful activities” for the “purpose of overthrowing democracy”, as well as risks of public disorder or harassment.
This proposal is reminiscent of the broadcasting restrictions enacted against Sinn Féin leaders. From October 1988 to September 1994, the British government prevented the voices of Gerry Adams, as well as other Irish republican and paramilitary representatives, from being broadcast on television or radio. To circumvent this injunction, broadcasters used to supplant Adams’ voice with actors, or have the newsreaders resay his words. During these troubled times, the British government believed the very voices of Irish republicans were seditious. When incoming Prime Minister John Major ceased the curtailment, Michael Grade, then-Chief Executive of Channel 4, said:
The lifting of the ban ends one of the most embarrassing attempts to censor of the most important domestic political story of post-war years.
Unequivocally, the Extremist Disruption Orders represent pre-print censorship. The police will be able to prevent the publication of – on social media – messages from people they deem to be extremists. Whilst social media may be used to share photos of cats or the latest Buzzfeed article about Benedict Cumberbatch, it provides a laudable platform for raucous and raw political debate. Articles from the BBC, The New Yorker, The National Review, Slate, Huffington Post, New Statesman, The Guardian, The Independent, The Telegraph, The Times, The Spectator and thousands of other news and commentary organisations can be shared and discussed. Blogs can be established and filled with wondrous and peculiar ideas. Tweets can be fired off across the entire world. Comments can range from a critical evaluation and exposition, to nonchalantly labelling another person an extremist. Social media is a potent tool for connecting friends with friends, politicians with voters and companies with customers.
By eliminating the publication of anti-democratic and extremist thoughts, we become prisoners of our own prohibition. It is not just the ability of the author to publish their opinions that is limited; it is the ability for the audience to listen to these extremist ideas, to enhance our own arguments, and to expunge erroneous concepts. Democracy – and the pursuit of democratic governance – is highly regarded within British society, but that does not mean it should be gilded against criticism or heresy.
These disruptive orders rest upon the gargantuan contradiction that ‘British values’, which according to the Home Secretary includes “free speech”, must be defended through curtailing the publication of political opinion. People are not the puppets of orators, who can be bewitched into grotesque immorality through the careful craft of words. These orders defend free speech through its reduction, annihilation and extinguishment. This is not a right that should be surrendered cheaply, or defended simply out of partisan spite.