Not-so Free Speech in Britain

There is a growing sense, here in Britain and abroad, especially in the United States, that freedom of speech is being diminished under Margaret Thatcher’s government. The indictment rests on a number of specific instances. In the coming session of parliament Section 2 of the Official Secrets Act of 1911 is to be rewritten. A White Paper setting out the government’s proposals for revising the act was published last July. It is Section 2 of the 1911 Act that, above all, has given Britain the unenviable reputation of being an unusually secretive society.

Then there has been the Spycatcher case, now brought to final judgment in the House of Lords, our nearest equivalent to a Supreme Court. The Law Lords found against the government for the press, which for three years had been restrained from publishing any information concerning Peter Wright’s allegations of wrongdoing by Britain’s security service, M15. But the terms of the judgment by no means ensure the future freedom of the press.

A more recent instance has been the government’s recourse to an administrative power, contained in broadcasting legislation, in order to ban broadcast interviews with members of the IRA, Sinn Fein, and similar extremist organizations on the Loyalist side. This action has followed a series of incidents in which the government has either sought (and sometimes obtained) prior restraints on the broadcast of television or radio programs or resorted to bullying tactics against the broadcasters.

Finally, there is the move (which Parliament will have to approve) to restrict the right to silence when people are arrested and questioned, or when they are brought before a magistrate to be charged. At first this restriction is to apply only in Northern Ireland, where trial by jury has long been suspended, but Mrs. Thatcher’s government intends to introduce a similar (although probably more restricted) change in the remainder of the United Kingdom. In addition, Parliament has passed a law that forbids local authorities “to promote homosexuality” or allow their schools to teach “the acceptance of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.”

I will deal here mainly with freedom of speech in Britain, but there are other worries for civil libertarians. One concern is with academic freedom, another with trade union rights. In addition there is the pervasive worry that liberties are being weakened by the casual disdain of the government, by the narrow preoccupations of judges, and by the indifference of the public. When the bans on broadcasting interviews were announced the talk-show phone lines were kept busy with proposals for a myriad of other proscriptions on free speech. These concerns were recently the subject of a special issue of Index on Censorship, the first ever to be devoted to a Western democracy. In an introductory article, Ronald Dworkin, the distinguished American legal philosopher, who spends half of his time at Oxford, where he is the Professor of Jurisprudence, warned that “liberty is ill in Britain…. The sad truth is …

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