Two episodes from the past week are instructive.
The first comes from Great Britain where, following the horrific terrorist attack in Manchester, conservative blabbermouth Katie Hopkins—think of a non-rhotic Ann Coulter—decided to chuck any sense of delicacy over the ledge. “Do not be part of the problem,” she tweeted, “We need a final solution.” She later changed those last two historically freighted words to “true solution,” but Twitter users had already reported her to British police who opened an investigation. Guardian columnist Hugh Muir egged them on: “Some speech is so inflammatory and societally divisive,” he pronounced, “that we enact laws to prevent it.”
The second episode happened here in the United States where alleged comedian Kathy Griffin thought she’d finally scaled that mist-shrouded pinnacle of topical humor. From out of a photo shoot came an image of her holding President Donald Trump’s bloodied decapitated head. It was a ghoulish, twisted, reprehensible stunt and it sparked a conflagration on Twitter from both left and right—even the president weighed in (on second thought, that’s not really an “even”). Within hours, Griffin had apologized and CNN had dropped her from its New Years Eve specials.
What did not happen was the police descending en masse on Griffin’s house. And that’s something we Americans should be proud of.
Griffin is safe thanks to the First Amendment, that impregnable bulwark with its beautifully clear language: “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech.” “No means no,” you might say. It’s possible Griffin will be visited by the Secret Service—a statute that co-exists somewhat uneasily with free speech protections prohibits threats of bodily harm against the president—but even a picture of Trump getting the Anne Boleyn treatment won’t run afoul of the First Amendment’s expansive shield. Griffin cannot and will not be prosecuted. Even room-temperature-IQ comedians have their rights.
In America, speech is sacrosanct, not just legally but culturally. Our rights are often under attack: the Second Amendment is menaced every time there’s a mass shooting, the Fourth Amendment has fallen under the depredations of the Patriot Act, the Eighth Amendment was soiled by Bush-era torture policies—but something about the First Amendment has become untouchable. Evelyn Beatrice Hall’s coinage (often misattributed to Voltaire) “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” has become a national ethos and “censorship” is the only C-word HBO won’t tolerate.
It is thus highly unlikely that a columnist at an American newspaper would war-whoop the police against Griffin, as happened with Hopkins. Likewise did no liberals run whimpering to the government when Sean Hannity was rattling on about how Seth Rich was allegedly murdered by the Democratic National Committee; instead, they pressured his advertisers, and presto-chango, Hannity announced on-air he would can the conspiracies. You might not like that strategy but it’s very different from seeking a government gag order.
Such silencing is possible in Britain thanks to hate speech laws that prohibit “threatening” and “abusive” expressions that either “stir up racial hatred” or are likely to do so. Words like “abusive” are elastic, which affords the British state broad veto power over controversial opinions. Hopkins is a frequent target here: she was also investigated for tweeting about how “nasty” Muslims get during Ramadan. Tumbling further down the farcical hill, an English political candidate was arrested for reading a Winston Churchill passage critical of Islam and a half-witted reality TV star was charged for insulting those with Down’s Syndrome.
We shouldn’t pick on the British, however, to whose peculiar species of liberalism we owe much of our Bill of Rights. The UK’s curtailments of free speech, not our shatterproof protections, are today’s global norm. Hate speech laws are found in Canada, Australia, France, and Germany, the latter of which last year greenlighted the prosecution of a satirist who had dared to mock the president—of Turkey. Speaking of which, Turkey’s putatively liberal constitution restricts media that “threaten the internal or external security of the State,” which has lately been invoked to arrest dozens of Turkish journalists.
Think about that the next time you get distressed about hysteria on Twitter. Lacking the power of the state, those outrage mobs tend to evaporate rather quickly, don’t they? And sometimes, as with Griffin, they even bring about needed change. May the irritated eye-roll and the snarky rejoinder always reign supreme over the government door-knock.