Free Speech: Dead as a Dodo? | Sarah Stook
There’s no doubt that you’ve heard the name, the screen name of Scot Markus Meechan. If you’d not heard of the YouTuber before, there is no doubt that you haven’t now- the media has been going crazy over him for the last few years, especially in the past few days. Yesterday, Dankula entered court wondering if he would be imprisoned, but instead he came out with an £800- a little better in the grand scheme of things for him, but not really great all around.
Now what did he do?
His girlfriend has a little dog, a sweet little pug. Dankula got annoyed with her continually cooing over how cute it was, so decided to teach it do a trick, that trick being a Nazi salute. At the beginning of the video, Dankula states that he would ‘turn him into the least cute thing I [he] could think of: A Nazi.’ The dog was taught to do the salute as well as respond to videos of Nazi Germany. For Dankula, it was a harmless prank. To many readers, it probably was. Yes, nobody reading (hopefully) will endorse Nazi Germany and its evil leader, Adolf Hitler. It ended up going viral and whilst for most it was nothing, it spiralled into a massive frenzy. Dankula ended up getting arrested for the video- reported as hate speech by critics- and spent nearly two years in legal limbo. On the 23rd April, Dankula headed to court with the idea of jail time hanging over his head. He luckily did not get time inside, but still was fined £800 for it. Dankula left the court cheered by supporters, which we should see as a victory for free speech.
Except, it wasn’t. Why is that? Because of the fact he was arrested for a joke.
We all know that Nazism is not an ideology to endorse- it was disgusting, wrong and evil. Dankula is hardly a Nazi, is he? He hasn’t gone about praising Adolf Hitler, going to a neo-Nazi rally or acted badly at a concentration camp. He isn’t a Nazi supporter, nor are the many millions who support him. The fundamental part of this is that he was arrested for a joke. That actually happens in authoritarian regimes- people actually got sentenced to death for it in Nazi Germany- yet it is happening in the UK, the home of parliamentary democracy and a proud free state. He made a joke about a taboo topic- god help the players of Cards Against Humanity- and got hauled out of his house in handcuffs by the police, who aren’t doing their best these days. We have no legal or constitutional protection to free speech as they do in other countries, such as the United States and their 1st Amendment, but there is almost an expectation of it. We live in a country with free elections, a democratically elected leader and almost unparalleled stability. From that comes certain expectations people aren’t going to be locked up for saying something. Yet, here we are in 2018- someone in the lawful, democratic UK got arrested for a joke.
This case has gone viral. In the UK, the case was brought up in parliament by anti-PC supporter Phillip Davis of Shipley. Comedians such as Ricky Gervais (speaker of the famous ‘just because you’re offended doesn’t mean you’re right) supported Dankula. Across the world, voices such as that of conservative Ben Shapiro have both ridiculed the decision and voiced their support for free speech. Nobody imagined that one Nazi pug- weirder stuff is on the internet and it’s hardly the first- would turn into one of the biggest conversations of free speech in modern UK history. No other time have tongues wagged so furiously.
The world has taken to mocking the UK. According to many, the Yanks in particular, we are a state with terrible healthcare, a socialist pariah and a place where we cannot say a single thing without being whisked away by Scotland Yard. Whether you agree with the first two depends on your politics but on the latter, it seems to be a bit of a commonly held view at the moment. Take for example another recent case. A young woman named Chelsea Russell posted the lyrics to a song called ‘I’m Trippin’ by small time rapper Snap Dogg on her Instagram as a tribute to a deceased friend. Questionable song choice aside, Russell was sent to court. It was argued that the lyrics were offensive due to their content. Now, a quick look at the lyrics shows that the song contains nothing more risqué than the usual rap song- the use of b**** and the n word. Those words are used liberally on social media by many and are the part of nearly ever hip hop or rap song in existence. Russell argued- rightly- that her profile was on private. Even if it was followed by millions of people, there would be no excuse for her to be hauled to court. Russell’s punishment was upgraded from a fine to a court order because of it was deemed ‘hate speech.’
Now, here’s the best part. The post was passed onto a member of the hate crime unit, a PC named Dominique Walker. Walker told the court that it was grossly offensive to her as a black woman and to the community general. That’s right- offensive to her. Walker may be offended by the comments about women and blacks in the song, but has she honestly never listened to an Eminem or Kendrick Lamar song? Considering how the community in general have responded to this case, it is clear that Walker is only speaking to herself. People can be offended by a variety of things, but it does not necessarily mean they are right and that they can use that righteousness to dictate issues. In court, Walker requested that the offending n word- it is really her prerogative? She is offended, that’s her right, but her views are not to be pressed onto others.
These two cases seem like Daily Mail fodder designed to elicit angry comments from loyal readers, yet, they are two legitimate cases for all to be legitimately angry at. A man is forced to pay £800 for a joke and a young woman is forced into a community order plus court fees for an Instagram post. Ms. Russell is nineteen and this will go on her record, making it hard for her to get a job. Will employees see past the criminal record part? Probably not, and she will have to live with that. I’m sure that when the government is crying about spiralling welfare costs and not enough young people in work, they won’t be thinking of petty issues like this. Increasingly, we are seeing a focus on the censorship of thought and free speech. In London, their amazing and adept mayor (sarcasm) Sadiq Khan passionately called out cyber bullying in a speech and has promised to dedicate more police to investigate online crimes. Now, it’s fair to say that Khan had a right to do this considering the comments that get made to him about a variety of things unrelated to his policies, but he rightly received criticism for his deep focus on the subject. An increase in hate crime police (which is an extremely subjective terms) when young black men amongst others are being increasingly killed in the streets makes one question the priorities of the authorities. Though some will argue about the influence of police cuts, there is still one main argument- why are police focusing on subjective issues but not on people being killed? A quick search online sees the horrible stabbings in London- so why is there a lack of focus? Now, that is not to say that hate crime and genuine threats, such as death threats, should be ignored- it is about not having so much police effort go into such a subjective idea. Hate crimes and cyber bullying are a thing, yes, but how do we define these things legally? Most readers will agree that the Count Dankula situation was a joke, not a hate crime. Again, this is not going to stop.
Now, contrary to what people may say, we have not suddenly overnight turned into a totalitarian dictatorship with NO free speech such as in North Korea or Mao’s China, but it would be hard to deny that it is not a slippery slope. Political discourse has turned simply into insults- it one disagrees with you, a nasty buzzword is sent your way instead of fair debate. If you voted Leave, you are a racist or a bigot. If you disagree with same-sex marriage, you are a homophobe. If you disagree with the #MeToo movement, you are a misogynist. Overall, if you disagree, you are a Nazi. This intolerance towards free speech has become so popular at universities that it is becoming increasingly common in the media. With the ‘No Platform’ policy made by everyone’s favourite National Union of Students (more on them soon), we are seeing speakers being banned. Though they give legitimate reasons for this, they do ban speakers that may be controversial, but are certainly not hateful. People like Germaine Greer have found themselves on the end of such policies due to their views on transgender folk- people may disagree, but surely debate is the best way to change minds both ways? On a more regional basis, the Lincoln University Conservative Society found its social media shut down and its society suspended something that caused uproar and eventually got revoked. What did they do? They criticised free speech in the university, commenting on the red ranking they received.
A society on campus got it free speech revoked for commenting on the lack of free speech at their host campus. Lincoln hardly did well with that and it just another example of what we are facing. Though it seems to be predominantly conservative and traditional speakers are being shut down, it would come as no surprise if liberals received this if they got on the wrong end of the SU. On a wider platform, we have the NUS. At their 2018 conference, a Jewish student ascended on the stage to discuss the wide problem of anti-Semitism. When he did so, the stage was stormed by angry NUS hardliners who tried to stop him, causing shock in the audience. These same hardliners blocked any Jewish voices on the anti-racist committee. It seems that the only people we can hate are straight white males and Jews, but everyone else is a poor innocent minority who must be protected. With Tony Blair’s 50% pledge, record numbers of students are attending university. As a majority of a certain age attending university, this message will spread. Now, most students are sensible and think that this kind of rhetoric is ridiculous, but many do not wish to challenge it out of fear of retribution. The others, those who are attending university in bigger numbers, are the ones who will be receptive to the message and who will be spreading it. As they move on from university into high powered jobs of influence, this idea will stick in their mind. University is the prime time to learn new things and have your ideas challenged, there is no other place like it. In workplaces, these people will not have their ideas challenged. It spreads, simple as that.
Now, for some people, others will not see the problem with free speech. They will say that we are not like other countries where people are imprisoned and even killed. Again, it is true, but it is still deeply concerning. When we take away free speech, we encourage a group think that is extremely dangerous. In democracy, we have the right to challenge. In the House of Commons, politicians debate with ferocity. Canvassers knock at doors to encourage you to vote for their party, which often ends in a debate. The whole debate chamber allows politicians to put their point across, which leads them to create legislation that enriches lives. Free speech leads to independent, learning minds. In classrooms, teachers ask students to debate issues and it often occurs in seminar rooms too.
Now, we have the best thing about free speech besides saying what you like: standing up against what you don’t like. If you have a white nationalist at a debate that you vehemently disagree with, you are able to stand up and say: hey, this is why I disagree with you. You can be insulting but that is not debate- explaining your side is debate. Free speech, as discussed earlier, allows changed minds. If you have strong convictions against an issue, however benign or controversial, free speech allows you to say that. If you are annoyed by Theresa May’s stance on Syrian intervention and genuinely believe it was very wrong, then you can stand up and say that, challenge that view. Sure, it won’t lead to Theresa May apologising for the decision but you have still stood up for what you believe in. In countries where free speech is censored, it is hard for them to stand up against the issues, particularly in single-party or single view politics. Those who dare are arrested, tortured, jailed and in some cases, killed, whether by death penalty or extrajudicial killings. Without free speech to challenge views, change is not made and that is why it is so essential. Those in North Korea who dare speak against the authoritarian communism that has ruined a country and put millions into despair are put in camps, along with three generations of their families. As such, it remains a deeply isolated country with the worst human rights and civil liberties on record, with communist policies keeping them poor and even starving its people. Even if it isn’t changing national politics, you are still able to speak your mind. With free speech, you can go on Twitter and debate a Conservative, a Labourite, a Lib Dem- anyone, and you can do the same on Facebook. Being able to both say what you like and debate what you don’t is one of the most beautiful things about free speech.
For the politically and/or philosophically minded amongst us, one can turn to liberal hero John Stuart Mill and his harm principle. In his seminal work On Liberty, Mill states the following: ‘That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.’ Whilst this is also a libertarian’s wet dream, it is also the best way to define free speech. As long as what a person says is not directly harmful- harmful being genuine death/rape/assault threats to one’s person- why should it be censored by anyone, especially the state? Count Dankula’s Nazi pug would not harm a person, maybe offend, but not harm, the case being the same for Chelsea Russell.
The moral of the story is this: free speech is a necessary good in our society. We should watch its decline with fear and try desperately to impede this fall. The stories that should be tabloid fodder are real, genuine cases that should be concerning to all who care about free speech. Fighting for it in any way is essential, especially consider the reason given. It is up to all of us to make sure that free speech does not go the way of the dodo: extinct.