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The Tory offensive against freedom of speech

The Johnson government has already passed laws – and is proposing new laws – which will restrict freedom of expression. The left must resist this assault on our rights, says BERNARD REGAN

FREE speech and freedom of expression are under attack from the Conservative government.  

Historically the left has been the champion of these rights against governments and states which have tried to constrain dissent through legislation and delegitimisation.

The Johnson government has already passed laws and is proposing new laws which will restrict freedom of expression.  

This is a matter of concern for the whole trade union and labour movement. It is time to reaffirm the left’s tradition of defending freedom of speech and expression. 

The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill is going through Parliament.  

The Institute of Employment Rights has described the 300-page Bill as a “Trojan horse” within which a wide range of measures are proposed which directly threaten the rights to demonstrate. 

The Bill contains proposals which will criminalise protesters who are found to be “intentionally or recklessly causing public nuisance.” 

The police will have the power to place conditions on demonstrations, for example, relating to the “noise generated by persons taking part.” 

Anyone who “ought to have known” these conditions and was subsequently convicted under this Bill might face up to 10 years’ imprisonment. 

Under Covid restrictions limits have been placed on movement to stop the spread of the virus. 

But their use has gone beyond concerns for health and wellbeing. The attempt to close down the vigil following the murder of Sarah Everard was the most glaring example. 

On March 7 this year, Karen Reissman, a psychiatric nurse and Unison activist in Manchester, was fined £10,000 for organising a demonstration challenging the government’s proposed 1 per cent pay rise for the NHS staff. 

She was charged because it was claimed the demo did not conform to social distancing regulations. 

But this Bill goes further, giving the police greater authority to determine whether a demonstration can be legally held and additionally has the potential to create a no-go area around Parliament.

The Bill also threatens the liberties of Traveller and Gypsy communities transforming trespass from a civil to a criminal issue. 

The homes and livelihoods of these communities could be jeopardised and with fewer and fewer sites available to them, they will face increased fines for unauthorised encampments, the seizure and even the sale of vehicles and trailers to pay fines. 

An already marginalised and discriminated-against community faces even greater pressure from this racist Bill.

There is an ideological intention behind these laws. Demonstrators like the Black Lives Matter activists have already faced abuse from Conservative MPs like the Home Secretary Priti Patel who described them as “thugs” and “criminals.”  

Those who threw the statue of slave owner Edward Colston off the bridge in Bristol might, under these new proposals, face sentences which could be twice the length of penalties for causing actual bodily harm. 

Attacking the statues of slave owners and imperialists is clearly a more serious crime for the Tories than tackling domestic violence abusers.

The Home Secretary’s comments were echoed less crudely by Culture Minister Oliver Dowden in a letter to museum directors, expressing opposition to “the removal of statues or other similar objects” while inviting them to a discussion about how they should ensure that “as publicly funded bodies [they are not] taking actions motivated by activism or politics.”  

Dowden draws a clear connection between their compliance with his wishes and “the significant support you receive from the taxpayer.”

The government, with the acquiescence of the Parliamentary Labour Party, has already pushed through the Covert Human Intelligence Sources Act, which gives the power to 14 government agencies to conduct undercover spying. 

Those undertaking this work will be empowered to act illegally if they consider it necessary to maintain their cover.  

In a piece of sheer cynicism and hypocrisy, this legislation has been pushed through at the same time that the undercover policing inquiry under Sir John Mitting is examining the police spying on more than 1,000 organisations, including trade unions.

Evidence at the inquiry recently revealed that the police had been spying on a wide variety of campaigns, including the Anti-Apartheid Movement, and continued their spying on one of its organisers, Peter Hain, even while he was a member of the Cabinet in the Blair government. 

They spied on the Friends of Blair Peach Committee, who were trying to expose the truth around his murder, even taking the names of those who attended his funeral.

In another move which grants immunity to another wing of the state, the Overseas Operations Act provides exemptions to British military personnel who served abroad from facing prosecution for crimes committed while on active duty. 

Even when prosecution was possible, of course charges were dismissed and sentences were lenient. 

In September 2003, Baha Mousa, a 26-year-old Iraqi man died after 36 hours in custody, having been savagely beaten by British soldiers.  

Other Iraqi citizens held by them were constantly beaten and kicked. Of seven soldiers charged, only one, Donald Payne, admitted inhumane treatment but he was cleared of manslaughter and perverting the course of justice.  

Payne served one year in prison while the other six charged were found not guilty. 

The Ministry of Defence eventually paid £2.83 million in compensation to the family of Baha Mousa.

In 1971 the British army operating in the north of Ireland killed 10 unarmed civilians in Ballymurphy, West Belfast. 

Fifty years later, on May 11 2021 those killed were found “entirely innocent of any wrongdoing on the day in question.” 

On the same day, in Parliament, the government’s Queen’s Speech announced that new legislation would be introduced to prevent any charges being made against army personnel for actions in the north of Ireland prior to the Good Friday Agreement.  

This is not the only example of the Tory government’s contempt for those trying to obtain justice for crimes by the state.  

This push is going alongside an ideological offensive pumping up a xenophobic flag-waving imperialism designed to promote some mythical set of British values. 

Universities, schools, museums and a wide variety of arenas are being urged to ensure they reflect positive messages about the country’s past.  

Museum directors as well as curators and universities are being encouraged to promote a positive narrative of the empire’s history.  

Slavery, colonialism, racism, genocide and the numerous other crimes of imperialism are to be woven into a cosy national narrative of enlightened development.

Freedom of speech and freedom of expression are vital to defend our past and our future.

Bernard Regan is a member of the National Education Union, Cuba Solidarity Campaign and Palestine Solidarity Campaign and writes this article in a personal capacity. He will be chairing an online meeting, The Threat to Free Speech and How to Defend it, on Thursday May 20, with speakers Salma Yaqoob, Lowkey, Helen Steel, Naomi Wimborne Idrissi and John Rees. Register at bit.ly/defend_free_speech.

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