Pitkin Avenue in the East New York section of Brooklyn is hardly as exotic as the road to Damascus (though considering the civil unrest in the latter area, possibly quite a bit safer), but it is where I had the great epiphany in my life. I was about fifteen or sixteen years of age, walking west towards Crescent Street on the south side of the avenue across from my old elementary school, P.S. 159, when the thought suddenly popped into my head: “Nobody has the right to tell me that I can’t read something!”—which was quickly followed by the recognition that I, in turn, could not censor anyone else’s reading. And so I became a Civil Libertarian, a defender of the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States.
It is as a believer in freedom of speech that I look askance at recent behavior of officialdom in the United Kingdom. Last March, during a football match against Tottenham Hotspur in London, Fabrice Muamba of Bolton Wanderers collapsed on the field. Luckily, the cardiac arrest did not claim his life, as emergency medical workers aided by a Spurs fan, a cardiologist who jumped from the stands, were able to revive him and see him off to hospital. Concern for Muamba was expressed throughout Britain, except most notably by a twenty-one-year-old student in Wales, Liam Stacey, who posted on Twitter: "LOL, Fuck Muamba. He's dead."
Other Twitter users reported Stacey to the police, who quickly arrested him. Stacey pled guilty to a charge of incitement to racial hatred and was later sentenced to a jail term of 56 days for a “racially aggravated public order offence.” Padraig Reidy writing on “free speech blog” (http://blog.indexoncensorship.org/2012/03/27/liam-stacey-sentence-a-perversion-of-notion-of-public-order-offence/) called the jail sentence “a perversion of justice”:
One can understand why public order laws exist. The police may need to be able to take people off the streets to prevent imminent violence, and be able to punish people for causing disruptions.
But was there actually any risk that Stacey was threatening public order? I don’t think there was. A row on Twitter is not the same thing as shouting abuse in the street, where there may be immediate physical consequences.
This past Sunday, November 11, was Veterans Day in the US and Remembrance Day in the UK—a day marked by the wearing of a poppy and much more solemnity and dignity than in the US. On this past Remembrance Day police in Canterbury arrested a 19-year-old “on suspicion of posting a picture of a burning poppy on Facebook,” according to the Guardian.
Kent police confirmed that a youth was in custody and being questioned under the Malicious Communications Act 1988. The act makes it a crime to send anything "indecent or grossly offensive, or which conveys a threat … [where] there is an intent to cause distress or anxiety to the recipient."
(It should be remembered that, despite the efforts of some enemies of free speech, it is not illegal in the US to burn the American flag.)
Besides the unnamed Kentish youth, another who protested against the poppy was Sunderland footballer James McClean, who was the only player in the English Premier League not to wear a poppy symbol on his jersey during this past weekend’s games. McClean, a twenty-three year-old player who is also in the Republic of Ireland national team, was rebuked by many, including his Sunderland club manager, Martin O’Neill, for his reaction this past September when he was an unused substitute during a ROI win over Kazakhstan. Resentful at being left on the bench, McClean immediately went the Twitter route: “Delighted as a fan we got the win. Personal level #fuming #fuckinjoke #embarrassing.”
The saying has been attributed to many, including Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain:
“It is better to be silent and thought a fool, than to speak and remove all doubt.”
Perhaps as an adaptation to the present world, the saying should be amended to read: