Jewish World Review Feb. 17, 2006/ 19 Shevat, 5766

Wesley Pruden

Wes Pruden
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Free speech takes a British pounding | Our British cousins, who invented most of the guarantees of freedom we improved on and now take for granted, are learning what happens when you tinker with free speech.

Tony Blair provoked humiliating opposition in Parliament, trying to impose one law prohibiting disrespect of religious faith, another to prohibit "glorification" of terror, and still another to require his countrymen to carry national identification cards as if they were no better off than Frenchmen.

But the appetites of the nibblers are never sated. A watered-down but still lethal version of the so-called religious and racial hatred bill is on its way into the law books.

"Rarely in modern peace time, and probably not since John Milton fulminated against restrictions on the press in the 17th century," observes Philip Johnston in the London Daily Telegraph, "has this country been so confused about where the boundaries of free speech lie. It never used to be this difficult. People were free under the criminal law to speak their minds, provided they did not, in doing so, incite others to commit violence or infringe public order."

The cautions for us are clear enough. Setting limits on free speech — whether by the "speech codes" on college campuses or attempted intimidation of everyone else by the presumed elites — is political correctness run amok. Free speech, after all, is like virginity: either you have it or you don't. Our First Amendment, unique in the world, does not guarantee speech in good taste, or speech that is responsible or reasonable. It guarantees only that speech shall be free. Our own government is no less subject to temptations to nibble at this guarantee.

The original language of the British religious hatred legislation was draconian, making it a crime to use words or to behave in a way "threatening, insulting or abusive to religious groups." The most enthusiastic backers of the law were, to no one's surprise, the radical Islamist imams and other troublemakers. Mr. Blair's government insisted that no one would be unreasonably molested by the authorities — the usual "reassurance" of bureaucrats — but given the sensitivities of the radical Muslims, prudent Englishmen for whom the stalking of Salman Rushdie is a current affair were not reassured.

Mr. Blair then offered legislation to make "glorification" of terrorism a crime, without saying, exactly, what "glorification" might be. British anger is growing in the wake of demonstrations in central London, when Muslims waved placards demanding beheadings and other unpleasant things for anyone replicating the infamous Danish cartoons, and the "glorification" legislation was a sop to that anger.

Soon the landscape was soggy with sops. Jack Straw, the foreign secretary, condemned the cartoons but not the violent slogans of the Muslim demonstrators, and his critics don't have to look very hard to see why. A large number of Muslims live in his Blackburn constituency, and the Labor share of the vote was down 12.1 percent in last year's voting. With local elections coming up in May, the declining Muslim vote, and not the threat of violence, terrifies the Labor pols.

Hundreds of Christian churches across Britain, including congregations of Anglicans, Roman Catholics and Presbyterians, submitted a letter warning the government that legislation criminalizing religious practices will worsen the tense relations between Christians and Muslims. "The mere quoting of texts from both the Koran and the Bible could be captured and criminalized by this law," the churchmen said. "Extremists have shown themselves willing to use malicious prosecution to further their purposes and this law would present such prosecution opportunities against all religious communities." Some moderate Muslims have joined the protest.

The Rev. Dan Naillah, an Australian Pentecostal pastor, told the House of Commons that he ran afoul of similar legislation in his country by merely quoting from the Koran at a seminar on Islam. An Islamic council filed a protest, saying that Mr. Naillah had not shown proper deference to Islam, and found a judge who agreed. Mr. Naillah and an associate were ordered to apologize and take out $30,000 worth of newspaper advertisements to explain the court's ruling. If they don't, they risk seven years in prison.

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JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.

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