Diplomat arrested for speech act, in UK

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American readers are likely to be truly amazed to learn what has just happened to a senior British diplomat, Mr Rowan Laxton. He was on an exercise bike at a gym in the Regent’s Park area of London, and he got angry as he watched film of the destruction in Gaza, and shouted: “Fucking Israelis! Fucking Jews!” — adding that they should be “wiped off the face of the earth.”

Mr Laxton is head of diplomatic policy in South Asia at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office of the UK government. He reports directly to brief the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband. (In one of those twists that fiction has to avoid on grounds of implausibility but real life allows, Mr Miliband is Jewish.) But he was not merely reprimanded, or sent for anger management, or removed from his post, or dropped from a BBC talk program over this. The police came and arrested him. He faces a criminal charge of inciting religious hatred, which can carry a seven-year prison term. (For a newspaper account, see this report in The Times.)

It takes a while for the US/UK constitutional and cultural difference to sink in, even for me. I moved back from the USA to the UK 18 months ago, and intellectually I was well aware of the facts. It still surprised me, after a couple of decades of watching unbelievably repellent public speech being protected by American, to see someone under arrest for mere speech, and on an emotional military/political issue.

The thing is that Britain has absolutely no analog of the American guarantee of freedom of speech in its legal system. There is no Bill of Rights saying that ordinary citizens can speak their opinions freely, even in political matters (the 1689 Act known as the English Bill of Rights guarantees only that Members of Parliament have that privilege when they are speaking in the parliamentary chamber). The government can directly control what appears in the newspapers if it wants to, and has often done so. The courts can also, quite separately, block news reports of various sorts and do so all the time (“who for legal reasons cannot be named”, say the newspapers when mentioning someone who a judge doesn’t want identified in news reports). And speech about other racial, ethnic, or religious groups can have serious consequences here. Iit’s not all just golliwogs and white wine. You shout out your opinions of the “fucking Jews” here, and you can face years in prison.

[Comments are off because I’m merely pointing you to a developing news story about use of language under two different political systems. I am not chairing a discussion on anti-Semitism, or the merits or culpability of Mr Laxton’s outburst, or his suitability for high-level diplomatic work, or the existence of threats to freedom of speech in the USA, or the membership policies of Regent’s Park gyms, or the dangers of getting too exercised at the gym. As a courtesy to the senior Jewish academic who wrote to me to express his deep disappointment at my silence on the issue of British anti-Semitism, let me just say — and it really should be unnecessary — that I am personally appalled at Laxton’s outburst, and don’t believe for one moment that he should be working as a senior diplomat if that’s how he thinks (and even shouts at the TV set in a public place). In my view he should be removed from his government job, and his heels shouldn’t even touch the ground on the way out. But even saying that goes a little further than is called for here: never forget, this is Language Log, not Anti-Semitism Log; I was merely drawing attention to a difference between US and UK culture as regarding how the criminal law deals with controversial linguiststic acts.]



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