Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Public Order and Parades -- U.K. Version

According to this story, officials in Luton, a town near London, arrested several Muslims who turned out to protest a parade being given for British soldiers returning from Afghanistan.  The protesters were arrested under public order laws, which prohibit using “threatening, abusive or insulting words” and “behavior likely to cause harassment and distress,” for shouting insults and carrying placards denouncing the soldiers as "bably killers," "rapists," and "murderers."  A trial judge found five of the defendants guilty.  In her ruling, she said:
“I have no doubt it is abusive and insulting to tell soldiers to ‘Go to hell’ — to call soldiers murderers, rapists and baby killers. It is not just insulting to the soldiers but to the citizens of Luton who were out on the streets that day to honor and welcome soldiers home. Citizens of Luton are entitled to demonstrate their support for the troops without experiencing insults and abuse.”
In the United States, these convictions would undoubtedly be overturned.  The First Amendment does not permit officials to protect public audiences from insults and verbal abuse.  Indeed, the Supreme Court has said that speech sometimes serves its highest purposes when it engenders offense.  It is important to note that there was apparently no effort by the Muslim protesters to interfere with the parade, to drown out the parade's message, or to threaten anyone with physical harm. 

The episode calls to mind the actions of the Westboro Baptist Church, whose memers (consisting largely if not entirely of a single family) have protested military funerals in the U.S.  Courts have generally upheld their right to stand on public ways and deliver what can only be described as offensive and abusive messages.  Many are of course appalled by the message -- and the messengers (a jury even found the group liable for invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress -- a verdict later overturned on appeal).  But courts have ruled that the government cannot simply remove these speakers from the public forum, no matter how insulting or upsetting their communications may be.  The message in the Luton case is far less offensive. 

Assuming the decision is upheld, the case highlights one of the comparative differences in speech laws and cultures between the U.S. and the U.K.  We have a different conception of "public order," one that generally protects the freedom to express offensive and insulting messages.  This makes for a more tumultuous public square.  But the alternative, which is to allow the government to sanitize public debate in the interest of protecting psychological sensibilities, is deemed by many to be far more dangerous than the communication of insulting or abusive words.  When in public, the audience is generally obligated to tolerate unpleasant speech.     



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