United Kingdom

Britain Turns Offensive Speech Into a Police Matter

The nation that gave the world John Milton and his cry for the "liberty to utter" is now at the forefront of shutting speech down.



Which country's police force just called on its citizens to report offensive speech? Not libelous speech or death-threat speech, just plain old insulting speech. Speech that is merely hurtful or hateful. Which nation's cops instructed the citizenry to snitch on haters?

North Korea? China? Maybe Turkey?

It was Britain. Yes, Britain has become a nation in which offensive speech can become a police matter. Where, in April this year, a 19-year-old woman was convicted of sending a "grossly offensive" message after she posted rap lyrics that included the N-word on her Instagram page. Where, also in April, a Scottish shitposter was found guilty of a hate crime for teaching a pug to do a Nazi salute and posting the footage on YouTube. Where in recent years individuals have been arrested and in some cases imprisoned for making racist comments or just cracking tasteless jokes on Twitter.

This birthplace of John Stuart Mill, this nation that gave the world John Milton and his Areopagitica, still one of the greatest cries for the "liberty to utter," is now at the forefront of shutting speech down.

The latest Orwellian invitation to rat out offensive speakers was issued by the South Yorkshire Police.

These clearly time-rich coppers took to Twitter to remind people that "HateHurts". That was their actual hashtag. I'm sure hate can hurt, but not nearly as much as being burgled or beaten up or whatever other crimes these cops are probably missing as they trawl Twitter for rudeness.

"In addition to reporting hate crime, please report non-crime hate incidents," they pleaded. These non-crimes include "things like offensive or insulting comments, online, in person or in writing."

It is chilling that cops, whose only business should be fighting crime, now want to hear about non-crime. Anyone who has even a sliver of respect for the ideal of liberty, for the right of people to go about their lives without being watched or narked on, should be seriously concerned that cops would want to hear about non-criminal behavior, otherwise known as everyday behavior.

Even more perversely, these non-crimes really just mean "insulting comments." So if you're in Yorkshire and someone on Facebook calls you a fat slob, call the cops. If you wear a niqab and a work colleague tells you—a la Boris Johnson—that you look a little bit like a mailbox, phone the police.

In essence, South Yorkshire Police want people to report on everyday conversations. This is Stasi territory. Coppers asking citizens to file reports on things they have read or overheard really should have disappeared from Europe with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Yet here it still is, this GDR-style instruction to eavesdrop and squeal, though now it's happening on the other side of the old Iron Curtain.

It is testament to how entrenched censorship has become in 21st-century Britain that a police force can so casually call for reports about speech.

This is a country whose communications laws and public-order legislation can be, and regularly are, used to punish hateful expression. Last year The Times reported that British police are arresting nine people a day for posting "offensive messages online." In 2016, 3,300 people were detained and questioned for things they said online. In some parts of Britain the arrest rate for offensive speech has risen by nearly 900% in recent years. We Brits are sleepwalking into a police state.

Not content with punishing people for the offensive things they say on public online platforms, now there are moves afoot to punish them for what they say privately too. This week the Labour MP Lucy Powell put forward a Bill in parliament that would ban private online discussion forums because, she says, hate speech can fester in these "echo chambers." Why not go the whole hog and mic us all up so that you can hear what we're saying at all times of the day?

The South Yorkshire call for information about "non-crimes" caused a stink in the media here in Britain, which is good. Yet while these cops' declaration of war against offensive speech may have been shocking, it wasn't surprising. It is the logical next step in Britain's ever-expanding empire of hate-policing.

We have laws that criminalize hate. We have laws against being grossly offensive. We have hate-crime laws, which mean that if you commit a crime with hatred in your mind, then you might get a stiffer punishment. Punch a Buddhist because you hate Buddhism, and you could get a longer sentence than if you punch him simply because you dislike that particular Buddhist.

This is the policing of thought. The policing of ideology.

The policing and punishment of hate by officialdom should never be acceptable. Hatred is a feeling, a sensation, a thing of the mind, and that area of life must always be off-limits to the authorities. South Yorkshire Police, here's some offensive speech for you: Fuck you and your Stasi tribute act.