What is the balance between free speech and support for terrorism?

In the wake of yet another horrific – but not ‘cowardly’: the terrorists most likely knew they would die in their efforts – attack  in London, UK Prime Minister Theresa May has said ‘enough is enough‘!  She added that there was ‘too much tolerance of extremism’ in her country and that the UK’s counter terrorism strategy would be reviewed.  ‘Difficult and embarrassing conversations’ would have to take place and changes will be forthcoming.

There is a lot in those words, much of which already has some people expressing concern for freedom of speech.  Does this presage the rise of the thought police in the UK?  Will the promised changes cast a pall on dissent?  Will we be unable to express opinions that run counter to some kind of state-sanctioned norm?  Should UK citizens, and by extension the rest of us, be up in arms – figuratively please – over all this?

It seems to me that while there is some room for worry there is also much on which we must come to a common understanding.  It is beyond any doubt that there is a lot of speech and thought that is incontrovertibly linked to violent extremism/terrorism and that we have allowed this to fester for far too long under the false canopy of ‘freedom’.

The following speech should categorically be prohibited and laws need to be made/applied to censure those who engage in such activity:

a) any support or apology for a terrorist group such as Islamic State, Al Qaeda or others.  ANY.

b) any call for violence against a specific group (religious,ethnic, sexual orientation…).  ANY.

c) any call for the overthrow of our system of governance.  No, I am not talking about whether we should abandon first past the post for proportional representation.  I am talking about subversion.  It is illegal and should be.

d) any sympathy or praise of terrorist acts. ANY.

Beyond this it gets tricky.  The four points listed above strike me as clear although I fully recognise that there may indeed be some wiggle room: I am not pretending that this will always be easy.  On the other hand I also believe that calling for a specific group of people to be shunned or banned is wrong but must not be made illegal.  You can oppose abortion or same-sex marriages in this country and that is, and should be, protected.  But what happens when you deny someone employment or service based on your views?  That is bad and should not be allowed.  Furthermore you must be allowed to criticise or lampoon anyone’s faith.  Blasphemy laws are so 10th century: if fact Denmark just threw theirs out.  I am not a fan of mean-spirited and disgusting invective against someone’s religious beliefs and can’t say I feel sorry when the few that go down that road end up targeted but we must permit this activity.

When it comes to terrorism, however,  we have to create and implement limits.  In all likelihood we already have the legal tools at our disposal and must use them.  It is a tragedy that someone like Anjem Choudary was able to get away with his public calls for violence and rejection of British democracy for as long as he did.  He was assuredly responsible for many individuals moving on to violent acts and yet he was allowed to do so under ‘freedom of speech’ tenets.  That was a huge mistake that cannot be permitted to occur again.

The task is before us.  We need to clearly state what is acceptable and what is not.  We need to be judicious in making those decisions since we have fought hard to create societies where differences are tolerated.  At the same time we have to eliminate speech that any reasonable person would designate as violent extremism (could we apply the ‘reasonable person standard’ found in law here?).  We  have allowed too much hate and calls for violence to thrive on our watch.  This has to stop.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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