Follow David on Twitter.
Sometimes I feel as if I'm visiting this country from a distant land, that I'm accustomed to different norms and that therefore every so often I'm hugely out of sync with the mass mood and attitudes of Britain (consuming a lot of US media may have started this). At the very least I feel as if I've got certain attitudes that are dated, which may be the case – I always spent an above average amount of time with adults as a kid, which might be the cause – but which now are decidedly minority. Either way I'm left favouring feet and inches to metres and metric, knowing most of England's monarchs, and with certain traits and thoughts, unfashionable notions such as hard work, self-reliance and family. Also, added to that list, can go the commitment to free speech: unrestrained, unrestricted and universal, the basic right of all free individuals to say what they want, without fear or sanction, however hurtful, mean or downright stupid the words spoken are.
I recall being about eight and having a teacher at school – a fantastic "old school" teacher of the pre-Leftist tradition that mixed a cheerful kindness with actual learning, and was naturally nearing retirement – who was definitely a subscriber to this theory. Whereas other primary teachers, with few exceptions, got entangled in endless "he said she said" arguments – "Jimmy called me names", etc, etc – such claims were of no interest: "Don't tell tales" was the usual response if it was deemed a frivolous complaint, or "Tell him/her to grow up." And if upset was caused – or appeared to have been caused, for children can lie to get others into trouble, as much as naive Leftists may be shocked to hear such – the message was of resilience and self-empowerment: the much maligned, much marginalised, near extinct "Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me" was the order of the day. That short children's rhyme, now seen so negatively, was in fact an overwhelmingly positive message; it was a call to ignore the taunt, to refrain from physical retaliation, to be strong by remaining calm and good-natured, to be the better person and rise above it, stronger and happier. Had there been anything serious then of course there would have been action, as it was only a primary school, but as a consequence of this general belief in shrugging off comments there was no bullying in the class, as any potential verbal bully's efforts were made futile by resilience.
Later, of course, "sticks and stones" develops into the more philosophical "I do not agree with a word that you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it" – the words of Voltaire, often misquoted and adapted by writers including myself – which is again a message of positivity. Standing with it is to be strong, to tolerate that which you disagree with and maybe find utterly abhorrant, because you recognise that the right to speak one's own mind – and to think one's own thoughts – is a natural right, God given if you wish, and that you have no more right to silence another than he has to silence you. It is thus of course the high minded and classical liberal legal position, as was once the case in England's historic common law, which posited – quite rightly – that name calling and unpopular messages were just that, words and unpopular messages, and that a crime was only committed if they pressed some form of physical threat or constituted harassment; opinions were opinions, threats were threats, and never the two were confused.
Today however things have changed, and I feel somewhat alien. Last month a student from Swansea, Liam Stacey, was sentenced – sobbing throughout his trial – to 56 days in prison, and potentially costing him his biology degree, for making vile, hideous comments on the social networking site Twitter about seriously ill footballer Fabrice Muamba. Now Mr Stacey is about as far removed from myself in every way imaginable – he has racist vile thoughts, I abhor such things; he enjoys watching football, I consider such as torture; he drinks, I don't; he uses Twitter for hurling abuse, I use Twitter for discussing politics – yet this case, and the way the mass public were largely baying for blood, deeply concerns me. Vile though his comments were, and Twitter would be well advised to ban him from their service, there were no threats in his messages, no incitement to commit crime, and – as poor Mr Muamba wasn't tagged by username – no case of harassment. Mr Stacey, whom we should be free to insult and hate in any way we desire short of harassment or assault in response, simply posted nasty messages, and today – Locke and Churchill turning in their graves – what we say is no longer truly free. He upset someone's feelings, and that's now a crime.
Our disdain for the impolite has lead us to accept that the State can restrict our freedom of speech for no reason other than the lack of popularity of what is said; indeed what's more shocking is that we as a nation seem to enjoy having our ancient liberties affronted, just as long as it's for saying something we dislike. The Judge in the case declared he has "no choice but to impose an immediate custodial sentence to reflect the public outrage", suggesting that public anger – the braying mob, flaming torches and pitchforks in hand – is somehow a guide to sentencing and guilt; an outpouring of support for the decision has spread the land: Lord Sugar, with a rather Orwellian tone, Tweeted "Be warned idiots!" and Gary Lineker joined in with "Let it be a warning to all you immature souls #thinkbeforwyoutweet". Welcome to England 2012, where the majority seem to think Magna Carta is a brand of ice cream and the Bill of Rights is unheard of. Indeed according to Stan Collymore, the former footballer and pundit, those of us who believe the law as stands to be an infringement of freedom of speech – which would include, if they were alive, Churchill, Orwell, Locke, Burke and Jefferson – are not merely wrong but "Idiots," as he tweeted yesterday. "It starts with a word, it ends in a stabbing somewhere," he added, taking a wild leap from words to actions, which can only be based on the assumption that the public are gullible fools that must be protected from dangerous thoughts as they lack the faculty to reason or restrain themselves. Believing in free speech makes you a "Soppy liberal tree hugger", apparently, which is something I've never been branded before.
It all contrasts rather sharply with that country where English liberty lives on, namely the United States of America. (No prizes for seeing that coming.) Recently Forbes reported on racist reaction to the blockbuster film Hunger Games, yet there was no clamor for arrests, rather an acceptance with joy that speech – however horrible – is defended by the First Amendment: "the lesson for me in all of this is just how important free speech is even when that speech is hateful. In some places, anti-Semitic commentary is grounds for arrest and imprisonment or at least a fine and censure. But here we let our bigots speak freely. This is a good thing…Sunlight, so the saying goes, is the best disinfectant." Another article, from January, celebrates the Internet's freedom of speech guaranteed in a 1997 Supreme Court decision: "Speech is speech and deserves protection regardless of the how we receive it". Indeed the freedom of speech, however unpleasant what is excused by it, is revered and cherished – as it once was here – the public and law recognising that freedom of speech is protected not in order to say things which are accepted thought, but to say the things which displease, even if they are wrong, ignorant or disgusting.
Now I do not think anyone could ever defend what Mr Stacey decided to Tweet that day, indeed he couldn't do so himself, but what we should defend – vigorously, and at all times – is his right to say it. If we allow the censure of our words for any grounds, however much we recoil in disgust at their viciousness, then we are breaking the fundamental principle of a free and democratic society – the freedom to think our own thoughts and express them as we see fit – and once broken, once no longer sacred, that censure can spread and corrode the remaining areas like a cancer. If we prohibit speech deemed hateful to races then why not hateful speech based around gender, disability, religion, class, opinion, politics? Why not outlaw anything that offends? It is the only logical conclusion, and against that we must stand: free speech is troublesome, at times irksome, often offensive and unpleasant, but above all free speech is indivisible. You cannot have some free speech, or semi-free speech, or partly regulated low-fat non-hydrogenated decaffeinated gluten-free free speech; you either have it, or you don't. And as conservatives we have a duty: we must never defend what the dumb and ignorant say, but we must always defend their right to say it.