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Freedom of Speech? Meet the British Border

Image via splcenter.org

Lauren Southern’s unjust arrest is a threat to freedom of speech and philosophy. This is an example of how the UK Border Force’s efforts to keep citizens safe are misguided.

Following Brexit, the United Kingdom is meant to be marketing itself as a country that is open to the world. Not one that is closing itself off in moody isolation; not one that is fulfilling the stereotype of Little England. Following the events of earlier this week, the government couldn’t have done better if they’d tried to bring this about on purpose.

YouTube personality Lauren Southern was prevented from entering the UK through Calais and detained under Schedule 7 of the UK Terrorism Act 2000. Southern’s case represents a major threat to freedom of conscience and expression. This event risks handing the more radical right the rhetorical weapons of persecuted martyrdom that will garner them sympathy and potential supporters. I don’t agree with quite a lot of what Lauren Southern has to say, but that doesn’t mean I can’t defend her on principle–the principle of freedom of speech being the most important of all.

Lauren Southern is a right-winger. She has previously identified as a libertarian, but now identifies with a more populist-nationalist direction. She has never, to my knowledge, advocated violence against others or condoned it. She has arguably blurred the line between journalism and activism; she was on a ship that tried to deny entry to Europe to a refugee rescue craft in the Mediterranean last year. If this had been the reason given for detaining her under Schedule 7 that would make it a different debate. This was not the reason given. Instead, what we are looking at is a case of discrimination based on political views held and beliefs spoken. If this was more evenly applied it might be more understandable, but as we shall see, it is not.

Southern was barred from entering the UK on Monday, apparently over a poster/leaflet she distributed about Islam in February – making her the latest right-wing figure to be denied entry to the U.K. after criticizing the religion. Others include Robert Spencer and Pamela Geller. As Fox News reported:

“The U.K. Home Office confirmed to Fox News that Southern was refused entry to the U.K. at the border in Calais, France on the grounds that her entry was not ‘conducive to the public good.’ ‘Border Force has the power to refuse entry to an individual if it is considered that his or her presence in the UK is not conducive to the public good,’ a Home Office spokesman said in a statement. The spokesman did not offer specifics as to why her entry was refused.”

Southern was due to meet Tommy Robinson, the highly controversial founder of the English Defense League for an interview for her YouTube channel. That wasn’t the main reason why she was denied entry. As Fox reports, “Southern said a notice of refusal of entry she was given cited a prior ‘distribution of racist materials’ in February in Luton, which the document said ‘represents a threat to the fundamental interests of society and to the public policy of the United Kingdom.’” What was this “distribution of racist materials”? Apparently it was a fake LGBT for Islam UK leaflet – in response to a Vice piece claiming that Jesus was gay – which claimed that Allah was gay.

Southern was held for six hours, had her phone confiscated, did not have the right to remain silent under the legislation used against her and faced a barrage of questions for four hours about her political and religious beliefs. “They asked me if I’m a Christian extremist, asked me how I feel about running over people with cars,” she told Fox News. “They asked me about Tommy Robinson, asked how I would describe myself politically, asked me how I would describe nationalism.” While there is a growing problem of right-wing extremism and the risk of right-wing terrorism is growing in the U.K., the questioning Southern faced was a clear abuse of power used against someone who the government unjustifiably deemed a threat to British safety. To argue that Lauren Southern condones or is a supporter of right-wing terrorism is untrue and adds to the claims that this was a politically biased judgment call on the part of the UK government.

“This barring of entry to someone who has ‘bad’ opinions should worry everyone on the political spectrum.”

It’s just a pity that the government wasn’t as diligent in its enforcement of border security when it came to Youssef Zaghba, who was allowed to enter the UK at least twice after being put on a security list, despite the fact he was under police monitoring in Italy on suspicion that he had links to ISIS. Zaghba was one of the terrorists who drove a van into and slashed the throats of eight people on London Bridge on June 6, 2017. Nor does it seem to think that returning ISIS fighters pose as much of a risk to “community cohesion” and public safety as a right-winger who doesn’t support or condone terrorism of any kind.

This barring of entry to someone who has “bad” opinions should worry everyone on the political spectrum. One who came out against this move was Muslim reformer Maajid Nawaz. As he argued on Twitter, this use of anti-terror legislation against Lauren Southern was a clear abuse of power with a political agenda in mind. As he goes onto argue, to detain a Christian conservative or populist nationalist like Southern for her own beliefs is bad enough, but to do so on the grounds that the leaflet she distributed is “racist” is ridiculous and even potentially dangerous. This is as he argues an endorsement of medieval Islamic blasphemy law that not only insulates a set of ideas from criticism from outside the religion, but also leaves those within the Muslim community who wish to dissent from Islamic orthodoxy high and dry with no recourse to assistance. As Nawaz argues, this may be the first time that the British government through U.K. border control have enforced both the medieval and potentially fatal Islamic blasphemy law and condoned Islamic homophobia in one go. Once again, the message is sent that not only have the Muslim community’s dissidents been abandoned, but now gay Muslims are on their own too.

Many will try to claim that by defending Lauren Southern and those like her, we favor her ideas and beliefs over others. This is a radically simplified way of looking at the world and displays a lack of serious thinking or reflection, showing once again the poor state of our public debate around serious issues of who we are and what values we view it is acceptable to hold. The goal is not to protect one set of people and values over another, but to protect all those who do not advocate for violence through speech from censorship.

The world is not binary; it is not black and white, no matter how much those who cannot accept ideas different to their own might wish it to be. All this achieves is a narrowing of the public conversation, increases the feeling of powerlessness and resentment of those whose views fall outside the constricting bounds of debate, and pushes them to the more extreme margins. The social censorship of British society that John Stuart Mill warned against, backed up by official censorship of the British government, all risk producing the backlash that they’re trying to prevent in the first place.

This use of state power against Lauren Southern is a worrying precedent. Those who claim that this was a wise use of government force should think very carefully about this. Today, these measures are used against those you disagree with and view as inherently immoral and bad people. If you think that this won’t be used against you in the future, whatever your positions are, even if you think they’re completely acceptable now, then you need to think long and hard about this.

The overreach of laws like the one used to detain a populist like Southern are bad whoever they’re misapplied to. Speech has now been legally weaponized against those guilty of wrong thoughts. The potential of using law as a weapon of tribalism should scare everyone.