Montréal, le 31 juillet 1999
Numéro 42
  (page 6)
  page précédente 
            Vos commentaires           
 by Ralph Maddocks
          If the Québécois Libre were being published in England, it would probably have no difficulty at all in choosing its candidate for le Prix du Québécois libre for this week.  He would be Lord Justice Sedley who, citing Socrates and two famous Quakers, told the UK High Court last week that « freedom only to speak inoffensively is not worth having ». These words were uttered by the Lord Justice as he allowed the appeal of a Ms Alison Redmond-Bate against her conviction for obstructing the police by preaching vehemently on the steps of Wakefield Cathedral.
A nation in trouble 
          One of the incidents which led up to this occurred in April 1997 when the then 24-year-old Ms Redmond-Bate and her father, Alan, were warning a crowd of 400 people in York of the dangers of turning their backs on God. The pair are members of the Faith Ministries Church in Leeds, a town in Yorkshire, and claimed that they had been told by God to preach His message because « He believes this nation is in great trouble ». After a two-day trial the magistrates gave them 12-month conditional discharges and ordered them to pay £100 ($230) in costs. This was the first time in this century that a criminal conviction had been brought against street preachers.  
          In October 1997, Ms Redmond-Bate with her mother and another lady were asked to stop preaching from the steps of Wakefield Cathedral, even though they had police permission to do so. They refused, so the police arrested them because they were allegedly in breach of the peace and for obstructing a police officer. They were convicted on both offences but appealed their sentences in Crown Court last January, an appeal which they lost. Fortunately there was a still higher court to which they could still appeal.  
          Lord Justice Sedley made several interesting points when he said that « There was no highway obstruction. Nobody had to stop and listen. If they did so they were as free to express the view that the preachers should be locked up and silenced as Ms Redmond-Bate and her companions were to preach. » In response to the prosecution argument that there could not be any breach of the peace if the speech was inoffensive the judge said: « This will not do. Free speech includes not only the inoffensive, but the irritating, the contentious, the eccentric, the heretical, the unwelcome and provocative, provided it does not tend to provoke violence. » 
Galileo was right 
          Throughout history we have seen many attempts to suppress free speech. Socrates who was perceived as a corrupting influence on public morality was put on trial for it and sentenced to death by the political and religious leaders of his day. His speech in defence of free speech still rings through the ages. Later, the Roman Emperors Domitian and Tiberius treated their political dissenters similarly. Galileo's suggestion that the Earth was not the centre of the Universe is yet another example of free speech considered to be offensive in its time. 
It was only in the 17th and 18th centuries that the first significant movements towards free speech were started, leading to civil rights bills being enacted. In 1689 the English bill of Rights was passed and in 1789 the French Declaration of the Rights of Man first saw the light of day.  
          The judge in the Redmond-Bate case mentioned that we owe a debt to the jury which in 1670 refused to convict the Quakers William Penn and William Mead for preaching ideas which offended against state orthodoxy. William Penn was greatly influenced by John Locke's arguments when he drew up the constitution of Pennsylvania in 1682 and  included the phrase: « That the people have a right to freedom of speech, and of writing, and publishing their sentiments. » This statement greatly inspired the First Amendment of the US Constitution, which is still being attacked from time to time even in our day. 
 « As far as I can tell this is the first law enacted,
at least in England, making thought a crime.
Courts were now, in effect, being asked to read
an accused person's mind instead of judging that person on what he or she had actually done. »
          Sadly there is an increasing trend in England to restricting freedom of speech. The apparently racially motivated murder of Stephen Lawrence caused Sir Robert MacPherson of Cluny to propose in his report on the matter last February, that the use of racist language even in private should be an offence. At the time the Home Office Minister commented that the « government is not in the business of political correctness », and ruled out the measure. Oddly, he seems not to have known that his boss, Home Secretary Jack Straw, had already introduced the new offence of racially motivated violence and obliged the courts to impose stiffer sentences for existing crimes if they believed the offence was racially motivated.  
          As far as I can tell this is the first law enacted, at least in England, making thought a crime. Courts were now, in effect, being asked to read an accused person's mind instead of judging that person on what he or she had actually done.  
Don't say nig... 
          This particular law, the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, claimed a victim just this month when a Welsh soccer fan was jailed for a year for yelling the politically incorrect « N » word at a black player. A second and much more egregious event took place in June on the day of the elections to the European Union. On that day, a 78-year-old veteran of the Second World War, George Staunton, a supporter of the United Kingdom Independence Party (who are opposed to England's continued adherence to the European Union) put up several posters and painted slogans on the wall of a derelict commercial building. The two slogans he painted were « Don't forget the 1945 War » and « Free Speech for England »; hardly inflammatory you may think.  
          You would be wrong, Mr Staunton was arrested by the Merseyside Police and charged with « racially-aggravated criminal damage » under Section 30 of the C & D Act above. There is no evidence that Mr Staunton is a racist and his legal representative is a well-known advocate of black and ethnic minority organisations who fully supports Mr Staunton. The damage, if any, would apparently cost about $200 to repair; although why anyone would repair a wall scheduled for demolition shortly is not clear. Also, one would think that in view of his age and character he would simply have been told not to do that kind of thing in future and sent home.  
          Thinking this might be a case of police stupidity I wrote to the Chief Constable asking for clarification. He must be busy, because he hasn't answered my letter yet. Undaunted, I wrote to the UK Criminal Prosecution Service asking why they would bring such a charge in what is so evidently a misdemeanour, if it is anything. Their answer was quite enlightening, they said that the police investigate and bring the charges and they prosecute them. I then asked whether this meant that they would do so even if the charge was obviously ridiculous and was informed that a more senior lawyer would answer that question. I wait still.  
          What all this may amount to is that it is an early shot in a war of persecution to be directed against the anti-EU movement. With the likely abolition of Habeas Corpus under Corpus Juris (see CORPUS JURIS, le QL, no 39) and Mr Straw's proposed changes to the citizen's rights to a trial by jury and their right to silence, it is becoming obvious that the British government is increasingly afraid of opposition to Britain's continued membership of the EU.  
          Accusations of racism were used in the US when they tried to destroy the militia movement; lots of talk about white supremacists planning a civil war etc. The tactic worked there and it is obviously about to become part of the Labour government's armoury. It will be interesting to see whether they will be able to continue to try suppress free speech in this way, or whether people like Lord Justice Sedley will continue to thwart them. 
P.S. : Commonsense has finally prevailed. The Daily Telegraph reported 
           on July 29th that the Crown has dropped the charge of racially 
           aggravated criminal damage, « due to lack of evidence »! 
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