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Tuesday, January 19, 2010

License to Libel

By Deborah Weiss
Published in FrontPage Magazine 1/11/10

In his recently released book Banned in Britain, Michael Savage, an American conservative talk show host, reveals the sordid details that caused the British Labor Party government to ban him from the UK. In context, the ban constitutes part of a larger effort to restrict free speech in the West.

One morning in May 2009, Michael Savage awoke and googled the news. There in bold headlines he read that he was forbidden to enter the UK, due to his “extremist views.” At first he thought it was a joke. But upon linking to the British Home Office website, he discovered its truth. A “name and shame” list had been posted of those prohibited from entering the country. The list included terrorists, murderers and Michael Savage.

The talk show host never committed a crime. He never applied to enter the UK, nor was his show broadcast there. The British government never warned him that he was engaging in problematic behavior, nor did it notify him after placing him on the list. He was not afforded due process or any process. Rather, the decision to ban Michael Savage was made by government authorities with no oversight, behind closed doors. They side-stepped laws and trampled on his civil liberties.

Banned in Britain explains how, through the Freedom of Information Act, Savage uncovered e-mails by British authorities who made the decision. The e-mails demonstrated that because most of the people on the list were Muslim, the government feared that radicals would falsely allege that the “unacceptable behavior” policy was specifically targeted at the Muslim community. Therefore, authorities sought a non-Muslim to place on the list in order to achieve “balance in exclusion cases”, or diversity in banning.

The Home Office’s prime researcher found no evidence that Michael Savage advocated violence, or that violence was ever committed as the result of his words. Nevertheless, then-Home Secretary Jacqui Smith used a collection of Savage’s sound-bites out-of-context to serve as the basis for his ban. She insisted that the talk show host sought to “provoke others to serious criminal acts and foster hatred which might lead to intercommunity violence.”

Savage wrote to the US State Department, the UK Home Office, and the British Prime Minister in an attempt to get his name removed from the “name and shame” list. Failing to get results, he subsequently filed a defamation law suit against the British Home Office and Jacqui Smith in her personal capacity. (Smith had resigned amidst allegations of corruption and financial impropriety unrelated to the Savage case).

Though most Brits had not heard of Michael Savage prior to his ban, his name is now likely a household word. The Secretary’s slurs made the American talk show host a target for Islamists. Therefore, after hiring body guards, Savage made numerous media appearances in Britain in order to plead his case.

America’s first amendment was not written to protect polite speech or politically correct speech. It was written, in part, to protect controversial, offensive, and cantankerous political speech. The speech in which Michael Savage engaged was legal in America. And though the UK has no first amendment, it purports to maintain freedom of speech and is signatory to treaties that promote it.

Free speech is not limited to the right to express one’s viewpoints. It includes the right not to be punished for expressing ideas contrary to those of the government. That means the right not to be libeled or slandered, not to have the government knowingly make false statements about you, or falsely attribute statements to you. It also means the right not to have the government ban you from the country as an alternative means of censorship.

Legal restrictions of free speech do not occur overnight. The process is gradual. First, self-censorship is encouraged, then “guidelines” are issued. Eventually, legal complaints lead to civil penalties, and finally criminal prosecution. Penalizing one man for asserting his free speech rights also has the effect of chilling the speech of others, who take heed of the consequences.

Across Europe, the progression is evident. Islamic blasphemy laws are being construed more broadly in countries that have non-Muslim majorities. In Canada, Human Rights Commissions regularly issue civil fines for “Islamophobic” speech or speech “likely” to cause hatred, even if no hatred results. To defend themselves, respondents must endure a punitive bureaucratic process, costing them inordinate amounts of time and money. In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders, Member of Parliament, will be placed on criminal trial January 20, 2010 for producing a short documentary on Islamic extremism, which allegedly constitutes “hate speech”. If convicted, he faces the possibility of jail. Ironically, Wilders, founder of the Party for Freedom, has been pushing for an international equivalent of America’s first amendment.

In the US, the signs are more subtle. Though America doesn’t exert police power to stifle speech, she may pass legislation, issue executive orders, or create a politically correct climate of intimidation. For example, the State Department, the National Counterterrorism Center, and the Department of Homeland Security issued memos to their employees discouraging the use of words ranging from Islamic terrorism to jihad. Politically correct double standards are applied to college campus speakers. Ahmadinejad is ok, but David Horowitz and Nonie Darwish are hate-mongers undeserving of a platform. The Fairness Doctrine looms large, threatening to shut down conservative talk radio since liberal talk radio cannot survive in the market place. Also, for the first time in history, the FCC has a diversity czar. He mandates private broadcasters to pay license fees that support PBS, doing indirectly what he cannot do directly.

Just this past year, DHS, the Missouri Information Analysis Center, the Maryland National Guard and Nancy Pelosi have all equated “right-wing extremists”, military vets, tea-partiers, and libertarian political groups, to threats normally associated with terrorists. Expressing fear of violence from those who espouse none, creates paranoia in law enforcement, who may respond with unfounded intimidation tactics. And in the UN, the United States in conjunction with Egypt, recently introduced a resolution that aspires to restrict criticism of Islam around the globe.

Under the facade of “sensitive speech” or “responsible speech” radical Muslims and the leftists who join them, seek the authority to limit the words and ideas of those with whom they disagree. Instead of winning the war of ideas in a fair fight, those in power seek to shut down the debate. After all, those who have weak arguments or false arguments must be unsettled by those who might win on the merits.

Those who benefit from restrictions on speech are those in power. Currently, that is the political left. Critical thinking serves as its enemy. Dissent is suddenly unpatriotic. Questions are discouraged. People assume they hold the right not to be offended. Expression of alternative viewpoints is precluded.

Academic institutions, once America’s shining example of intellectual diversity, now serve as leftist indoctrination centers. Worse, some national security threats can no longer be openly discussed by intelligence professionals. DHS whitewashes the problems. The media fails to report them.

Free speech serves as the foundation of free and democratic societies. Without free speech there can be no political opposition. Those who oppose government or mainstream views are oppressed, penalized, imprisoned, or even executed. All socialist, communist, fascist, and tyrannical regimes know that the first step in stemming political opposition to their power is to stifle free speech. The Nazis burned books, Stalin outlawed non-state controlled newspapers, and Iran is currently jailing those who peacefully protest June’s election outcome. In some American journalistic circles, terrorism seems less subject to criticism than objectively reporting its roots.

In western countries, free speech ought not be considered a privilege but a fundamental right. Its restriction doesn’t merely violate human rights, but additionally constitutes a national security risk. In order to secure America’s freedom, the public must be informed of freedom’s ideological threats. Intelligence must be permitted to discuss ideological motivations for terrorism. The media has a duty, not to be “sensitive” but to report accurately. Academia has an obligation to foster independent thought.

Banned in Britain is an easy, interesting, and enlightening read. Savage portrays his story in context of the increasing social, political and legal encroachments on western freedom of speech. Those who speak out with differing, conservative, or controversial viewpoints are incrementally being silenced. Now an American talk show host can be banned from the country that gave us the Magna Carta. Will the thousands of listeners who share his views be next?
Deborah Weiss, Esq. delivers speeches on Political Islam's Assault on Free Speech and is a regular contributor to FrontPage Magazine.


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