Extremism, free speech and mother’s logic

Sir Peter Fahy – Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police – has today voiced concerns that Britain is in danger of becoming a police state. His comments, reported in the Guardian, come in the wake of Theresa May’s recent advocation of Extremism Disruption Orders (EDOs). Fundamentally, he believes the police are being asked to increasingly define and determine extremism rather than being asked to enforce a clear set of guidelines. This blog has previously commented on this issue here and here.

Sir Peter is concerned that police constables are having to make snap decisions about what does, and does not, constitute extremism. He cites several examples in which it is less than ideal for police officers to make spur of the moment judgments on whether an incident must be considered extremist. Whilst he states his support for EDOs, he argues the definition of extremism and extremist behaviour ought to be determined by other members of civic society. In effect, he suggests the police ought to be told what constitutes extremism and then given the task of enforcing such parameters.

It is certainly true that the police are increasingly asked to go beyond mere law enforcement. At a basic level, they make legal interpretations – whether within a clear set of guidelines or not – that are routinely not borne out in the courts. There have been several examples of police arresting street preachers, protestors and others under the guise of ‘extremism’ or ‘hate speech’ that subsequently never led to charges or were thrown out of court. So current efforts to interpret the law are not going terribly well and to ask the police to now define the law on the spot is unlikely to go any better.

Fahy said government, academics and civil society needed to decide where the line fell between free speech and extremism. But this is rather troubling. Why need there be a line between free speech and extremism? Surely the very nature of free speech is that it is free, extreme or otherwise. If we begin drawing lines around acceptable words, we are on the fast track to only being allowed to utter state authorised orthodoxies. Free speech and free debate are disallowed under such a system.

Fahy is right that police shouldn’t be about enforcing what can and can’t be said. Sadly, he is wrong that such should be the preserve of others in civic society. We already have laws against violence, harrassment, terrorism and the rest. Such actions are dangerous and are rightly controlled. Speech does not cause such actions. Even in cases of an individual “inciting” violence, it is the one who makes effort and plans to carry out the act who should be found guilty. Unless there is some evidence of coercion and duress, it’s difficult to see how speech can be held accountable. 

Most of us can surely remember a time, as I certainly can, when we responded to parental punishment with the enduring line “but he told me to”. I can also recall my mother’s incredulity and typical response (as I’m sure I employed it more than once) “if he told you to stick your hand in the fire, would you do that too?” 

Sadly, it seems, the government no longer take such a sensible line. Now, according to government, the one who even suggests a course of action is guilty. Worse yet, most will not suggest a specific course of action but will talk in generalities around a point. So now, even if they only infer or suggest an action, they may be guilty. Indeed, they may neither infer nor suggest but build a framework within which one might conceivably draw a personal conclusion to act. For such they would be guilty too.

I think I prefer my mother’s logic.