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Free Speech And The Rule Of Law

Martin Emmerson Nominating Officer


The events of the last few weeks have sparked much debate regarding the right to free speech amongst Libertarians.

But the arrest & imprisonment of Stephen Christopher Yaxley-Lennon aka Tommy Robinson is not an issue of free speech but of the Rule of Law.

Rule of law is one of the base principles of Libertarianism. But what happens when those laws become so voluminous, so vague and the complexity means that you need a law degree to understand it.

“Show me the man and I’ll show you the crime” an infamous side kick of Stalin once said. They oppress those who live under them, society can become as unlivable as if it were lawless, subjected to the arbitrary scrutiny of police & prosecutors.

If we take a look at the public order act 1986 the use of unquantifiable terms such as ‘reasonable’, ‘serious’, ‘appropriate’ and ‘the environs of the court’ makes the act incomprehensible.

This obscurity is at odds with the rule of law. Surely this requires that ordinary people can readily determine what laws they are required to obey. Whether or not you are charged by authorities should depend more on objective legal rules than that of arbitrary discretion.

Ignorance of the law may not be a valid excuse but such ignorance is virtually inevitable when the law regulates almost every aspect of our lives and is so extensive and complicated that few can keep track of it.

The public order act has been used by police to bring charges to protestors at an anti-fracking demo at Balcombe in 2013 which includes the arrest of Green MP Caroline Lucas. All 14 were acquitted citing conflicts with the Human Rights Act.

In 2009 the Metropolitan police apologised to press photographers it prevented from covering clashes between protesters and riot officers during the G20 summit in London.

A number of press photographers complained that police forced them away from covering clashes with demonstrators citing section 14 of the act.

In 2014 campaigners which included several famous comedians successfully reformed Section 5 of the act to have ‘insulting’ removed from “abusive or insulting”.

As Libertarians if there should be one matter we agree on. It’s supporting a rule of law that we can all understand.

Events in the Lewisham were just another example of how our right to freedom of debate is being attacked.

Members from the far left activist groups prevented the democratic process of electing a new member of parliament for the Lewisham East by-election from going ahead.

Police made the decision to close down the meeting due to an “increasing threat of a breach of the peace occurring”. The irony being that our candidate Sean Finch was campaigning on the single issue of free speech and what incidents like the one in Lewisham are doing for our democracy.

But in reflection has the right to free speech & debate been prevented by the protestors outside or from the Police using the ambiguous offence of ‘breach of the peace’?

We should defend someones right to protest even if we disagree with them as this is also ‘free speech’ & ‘freedom of expression’. But this right only extends to point of harm as put by John Stuart Mill’s ‘harm principle’ – “You’re right to swing your fist freely ends at the point of my nose” i.e. in exercising your right to protest you’re preventing another’s right to free speech & debate.

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