ED112702b: Danger: Free Speech at Work

COMMENTARY Political Process

ED112702b: Danger: Free Speech at Work

Nov 27, 2002 2 min read
Edwin J. Feulner, PhD

Founder and Former President

Heritage Trustee since 1973 | Heritage President from 1977 to 2013
If images of people being persecuted for "thought crimes" strike you as the stuff of science fiction -- or, at worst, something that happened when communism was at its height and jackboots were storming Europe -- get ready for a wake-up call.

It comes from Britain. There, in a pre-dawn November raid, a task force from London's Metro Police Department raided 150 homes and arrested 60 people in a crackdown on hate crimes. According to the British Broadcasting Corp., many of them were arrested on "suspicion of making racist threats and of homophobic harassment."

Cressida Dick, head of the department's Diversity Directorate, insisted this was no publicity stunt. "People should not have to go through life being subjected to abuse because of who they are or what they believe in."

Indeed. But you don't have to be a cheerleader for "abuse" -- or believe the people rounded up by the London police are wonderful human beings -- to be repulsed by a campaign designed to punish people more for what they think or say than what they do.

Ask British columnist Robin Page. London's Daily Telegraph reports that he was recently arrested "on suspicion of stirring up racial hatred in a speech to supporters of fox hunting," a tradition which has become a cultural lightning rod in Britain. Page was released, but we can only hope that authorities there keep a close eye on this dangerous marauder.

Unfortunately, Britain isn't the only place where thought police are on the prowl. Sweden's parliament has passed a constitutional amendment banning speech critical of homosexuality. Offenders can wind up with lengthy prison terms. This is being done, of course, in the name of "diversity" -- although, alas, that lofty ideal apparently doesn't extend to the marketplace of ideas.

Closer to our own shores, there's Canada, a country where "censorship is almost a national sport," writes U.S. News & World Report's John Leo. Authorities in Saskatchewan last year fined a newspaper $1,500 for publishing an ad that quoted Bible verses on homosexuality. "Presumably, if the authors of the Bible had been available for trial, Saskatchewan would have dealt sternly with them, too," Leo writes.

Here in America, we've been spared police raids, harsh speech laws and the sight of journalists being clapped in handcuffs for daring to mouth politically incorrect thoughts. But that doesn't mean would-be censors aren't active within our borders, too. Take the California-based Muslim Legal Defense & Education Fund, which is suing Harvard University law professor Alan Dershowitz for proposing a new Israeli counter-terrorism measure in an op-ed published by the Jerusalem Post.

Dershowitz suggested Israel declare that the next time it's attacked by terrorists, it will give the residents of any Palestinian town known to have harbored terrorists 24 hours to clear out before the place is leveled. The Muslim group's argument? Since the Geneva Convention says "no protected person may be punished for an offense he or she has not committed," Dershowitz is urging Israel to commit war crimes.

No matter what you think of Dershowitz's proposal -- and people of good will can disagree on this issue -- he has an inalienable right to speak his mind, no matter how much his ideas may upset some people. As a conservative, I often disagree with Dershowitz. But I would never want to see him silenced. Indeed, I cherish the liberty that allows us all -- liberals and conservatives -- to compete for the hearts and minds of the American people.

Modern-day censors will protest that they're just protecting people from "abuse." But history shows where their campaigns eventually lead if left unchecked -- straight into the gulag. It's the abuse of free speech we can't tolerate.

Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D.,  is president of The Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org), a Washington-based public policy research institute.