The question of free speech and expression never goes away. Those who would supress what we might say continue to find ways and means of doing so. But if we actually believe in free speech at all, it means the freedom to say what we will even if others find it deeply disrespectful or offensive.
It is my own view that decency and good order demand a level of care from those who are republican or who just aren’t enamoured with our royal family. It seems to me that protesting funerals – particularly along the route a hearse may take or immediately outside the place where the service and internment will take place – can hardly be deemed appropriate. Revelling in someone’s death is the hallmark of a particularly unsavoury character. If decency and respect are at all important, it is hard not to reckon almost any other time better and any other place more appropriate than a funeral to raise voice one’s feelings about such things.
It is easy to lose sight of the fact that an actual person with a real family has died. Whatever we may think of the person or their family, it is generally accepted that to picket their funeral is deeply unpleasant. Whatever system they may stand for, whatever they may have done, however we view their legacy, there is a level of decorum and courtesy that most people recognise as reasonable which makes such cases – no matter how legitimate the point may or may not be – properly inappropriate. There is a reason why people find the likes of Westboro Baptist Church picketing the funerals of American military personnel to be about as offensive as it gets.
But as inappropriate and offensive as such things may be, there is a difference between what most decent people believe should be done and what the law says must be done. There are all sorts of things we might not like, we may even find offensive, that ought not to be crimes. Among them, the right to say deeply offensive things at entirely inappropriate times – though crass, lacking class and falling foul of common decency – nevertheless ought not to be a crime. We may not like it, we may prefer people didn’t do it, but it shouldn’t be a matter for the police.
Which is why I am particularly concerned at the arrest of people voicing their opposition to monarchy in public. Specifically, there is this in Oxford:
Second, there was this in Edinburgh:
Now, you may or may not agree with the view on display. You may or may not like the timing of the view being expressed. You may not like where that view was expressed. But it is surely a matter of concern that such views became a matter of police concern.
Like it or not, the monarchy is a political institution. It is part of our political system. Any argument for or against it is, by definition, a political stance. Such as you believe in the right to political protest and to hold whatever political views we will, it is difficult to see how it does anybody any good to see arrests made because somebody voiced a political opinion that some people might find offensive. Indeed, the overwhelming majority of political views end up being offensive to somebody. It is in the nature of politics.
Just as I found the political glee at the death of Margaret Thatcher on the day she died deeply distasteful – even in the face of the fact that I abhorred her tenure and most of what she stood for – I find the same about any glee in the death of Elizabeth Windsor. She was, in the end, a woman – a real person – who (in my view) deserves the respect of decorum and decency surrounding her own funeral on that ground alone. I find protests at funerals unsavoury and unseemly. I wish people would not do it, regardless of whose funeral it is.
But I do think they should have the right to voice such opinions. Yes I do. Do I think they should be permitted the freedom to voice them despite it offending some by what they say and others by its timing and placement? Yes. Do I think such acts of grossly indecent behaviour serve one’s cause? Not really. Truth be told, as one sympathetic to the argument, I wish they wouldn’t do it. Aside from the matter of public decency, it is counterproductive. Nobody will be won by such crass protests. Most will consider it shameful and even those sympathetic to you will find it unseemly. It neither respects common decency nor advances your cause. It is deeply unhelpful to everyone – the person, the family, common decency and even the cause you wish to promote. It is – in almost every conceivable way – a thoroughly bad idea.
But should people be free to indulge their bad ideas? Of course they should. Should offence and disrespect be warrant for police involvement? I don’t think so. I don’t think anyone ought to do such things, but I certainly don’t think they should be arrested if they do!
The reason for that is clear enough. If we aren’t happy for people to say what you might find inappropriate or offensive, you have no grounds to argue against someone else finding something you say inappropriate or offensive. If you have cheered on the police as they arrest the person who offended your sensibilities, you will have no defence when someone else cheers on your arrest for offending theirs. That you didn’t think you said anything remotely offensive, or didn’t intend to be inappropriate, will be neither here nor there. That someone was upset by it will be enough because you had insisted your upset was enough for someone else.
I have made this case so many times now it is becoming tiresome. The point of offence may change, the actual words use may differ, but the principle remains the same. Unless we are willing to afford others the freedom to offend in ways we find deeply inappropriate, we cannot be surprised if we find we fall foul of the law when we voice an opinion that someone else doesn’t like.