Document Type


Publication Date

Spring 1987


On any given Sunday in Hyde Park, London's huge urban sanctuary of tailored ponds and manicured gardens, one is likely to hear outrageous and provocative public utterances about race and religion. A few of those venting their spleen here are practicing rhetoricians, a few are clearly acting-but others are absolutely sincere in their hatemongering and passionate in their vilification. All of them are focal points for assembled spectators of varying classes, many of whom are professional hecklers. The police, milling about to put down possible disturbances of the peace, are seldom called upon to quell roused rabble. Thus is this weekly theatre, Britain's custom-laden monument to free speech, neatly contained by day, boundary, and protocol. Would that such a basic human right, the simple freedom to express one's thoughts, be always everywhere maintained so easily? Beyond Speaker's Corner in Hyde Park, however, the reality in Great Britain is quite different. Racial tension and the confrontations it engenders have appeared with increasing frequency during the 1980's. The religious warfare that has plagued Ireland for more than two decades has been barely contained. The British authorities, unlike their American counterparts, who are limited by a strictly construed First Amendment, have been much less hesitant to repress provocative speech. It goes almost without saying that in this country we take the freedom of speech to be virtually absolute. An American can parade through a predominantly Jewish community wearing full Nazi regalia, proclaim his allegiance to Hitler, and publicly spout justifications for genocide without fear of government reprisal. Such incitement would be severely restricted if not punished in all other Western democracies. In England, perhaps our closest relative as far as the recognition and protection of basic human rights are concerned, laws against incitement to racial hatred are likewise direct and restrictive, in sharp counterpoint to American notions of what true liberty is all about.

This article traces the history and development of the group-libel laws in England, and addresses a fundamental question: have the British truly missed the point about freedom of speech-or is our perception of where the line should be drawn a misplaced preoccupation with blind principles? Given the continued requirement of the Attorney General's consent to prosecution, it seems unlikely that racist speech in Great Britain will be more vigorously controlled under the newest (1987) incitement statute. However, it is too early to access the new law's impact. Similarly, in view of popular misgivings over any restraint on expression, it appears even more unlikely that a group-libel action will soon be available, regardless of how desirable or even necessary its purpose may be. The British are on firm moral ground in seeking to draw a clear line between free speech and racism. But until they become more resolute in suppressing short-sighted political considerations, they are destined to failure in trying to practice the noble principle they preach.



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