25 thoughts on “Fred Phelps Banned from Britain

  1. This is very bad.

    Nobody opposes the Westboro Baptist Church and their message more than me, but stifling the expression of views contrary to the majority is very regressive.

    The *more* unpopular a view is, the more important it is to protect. Any freedom-respecting state will recognize the equal participation of all views in social fora; not just those deemed safe, soft, or agreeable.

    I am disgusted that feminists, of all people, would cheer the non-inclusion of people based on their views. The more marginalized, hated, and universally rejected a view or perpsective is, the more important it is to protect and safeguard those freedoms that allow us to do the same, no matter how disagreeable.

    Not only is this illiberal and censorious, but in doing these kinds of actions, they prove to be injurious to ourselves. Pardon the gendered language, but in the preface of his “Age of Reason”, Thomas Paine expresses this thought well:

    “I have always strenuously supported the Right of every man to his opinion, however different that opinion might be to mine. He who denies to another this right, makes a slave of himself to his present opinion because he precludes himself the right of changing it.”

    Perhaps we’ll respond better to the words of Rosa Luxemburg:

    “The freedom of speech is meaningless unless it means the freedom of the person who thinks differently.”

    Or Colin Powell?:

    “Free speech is intended to protect the controversial and even outrageous word; and not just comforting platitudes too mundane to need protection.”

    This is *not* the right action. Feminists carrying placards and signs, protesting causes they thought were once worth their time were once thought just as disgusting and offensive.

    I am appalled by censorship more than I am by the Phelpses. And, yes, I’d defend your right to say these things (however disgustingly illiberal) and more.

    You’re cheering an action that not only makes a bludgeon for your own beating, but mine too.

    How we have forgotten.

  2. amanda, i would agree with you entirely, except that it’s very clear to me that inciting violence is different to simply expressing an opinion. phelps and his family do the former, and there’s no reason they need to do that in order to have or fully express their (disgusting) opinions. i can’t speak for all feminists, but this feminist will never find it necessary to encourage hate or violence, in placard form or otherwise. so i am simply not ‘making a bludgeon for my own beating’. i applaud the home office for standing up for the rights of gay britons.

  3. Amanda, I have trouble thinking through the issues surrounding freedom of speech, hate speech, and so on. But one thing that always strikes me is that freedom to express one’s beliefs needs to be a right that one exercises responsibly. Phelps and his family express their opinions by picketing funerals, holding placards stating that the deceased is rotting in Hell. (For those readers who don’t know already, Phelps first became famous for picketing at the funeral of a gay teenager, Matthew Sheppard, who was tortured, severely beaten, and then left tied to a fence to die. Phelps and Co. turned up at his funeral holding placards saying ‘God hates Fags’, and ‘Matthew Sheppard is now in Hell’.) That’s not a responsible way to exercise one’s freedom of speech. That’s vicious, nasty behaviour.

    Freedom of speech is an incredibly tricky issue, anyway. The idea that everyone should be free to express their ideas in honest open debate is noble. But in practice, things are a lot more complex. People might express and discuss their opinions with each other in ‘private’ conversation. But in ‘public’ acts of protest, or at meetings, or at presentations, and so on, speech is used to persuade, to influence, to incite. And the way this happens is not (solely) by rational means, where the audience reasons and comes to some considered conclusion about whether they think what is being said is right. People are persuaded because the speaker is charismatic, because the speaker’s attractive, because they want to belong to the group, and so on. But this makes the issue a lot more tricky. It’s no longer about whether we should allow someone to express their views, but whether we should allow them to try to gain influence in these less-than-rational ways. Where this influence will be harmful to others, I think we’re justified in preventing them from trying to gain influence. Of course, this raises a whole bunch of questions – is there a clear distinction between merely expressing and trying to gain influence (I doubt it); who decides what counts as harmful; how do we decide what counts as harmful, and so on. But nevertheless, I don’t think all forms of speech are equal, and so I don’t think they should all be equally protected under the right to freedom of speech.

    There’s something somewhat analogous to my rather vaguely expressed view in MacKinnon’s thinking on porn. One might think that freedom of expression means that porn shouldn’t be censored. But porn influences people in such a way that women are silenced. So protecting freedom of speech actually involves restricting porn.

  4. The official reason given in the article is that the individuals go in for inciting hatred and violence. That sounds like a good idea.

    That said, I’m wondering about attitudes to free speech. Is it the case that the right to free speech is seen as less absolute in the UK than in the US? E.g., papers in the UK can be prevented from reporting on the run up to trials (or even on the contents of the trials??)??

    I think libel on the net has been prosecuted successfully in the UK in a way that it can’t in the US.

  5. jj, my sense is yes. what one *does* in speaking is taking into account in a way that it’s not really allowed to be in the US. (i would say that EU laws are more finely nuanced than american laws, but that would surely rub people the wrong way. i’m biased, what can i say?)

    amanda, i should say that tho i disagree with your view in this case, i do appreciate your introducing the free-speech-question aspect of the story to the discussion. it’s tricky and interesting and important.

  6. Worth noting that the home office recently kept out Geert Wilders, proponent of Islamophoic views.
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/feb/12/far-right-dutch-mp-ban-islam
    There the case was made that his utterances likely to incite violence and extremism.
    Relating to Monkey’s views above about gaining influence – in this case Wilders aim was to show his hate filled film, Fitna, in the house of lords. It seems to me that to have given this platform to his views would have been to give them a legitimacy that they don’t deserve; and in suggesting that such rubbish is worthy of the house of lords’ attention might have very harmful effects.

    But it is also worth noting that free speech laws in the UK are more restrictive than those in the US: speech that incites religious and racial hatred, or hatred based on sexual orientation, is not protected.

  7. The UK has less protection of free speech, and strong laws against inciting some forms of hatred e.g. racial hatred. That’s why anti-porn feminists in the UK have sometimes tried to use the law against inciting hatred.

  8. I’m wondering whether “inciting violence” means anything more than “expressing views others find offensive enough to commits acts of violence.” If it isn’t anything more than that, then shouldn’t the law be targeting the violence and not the speech?

  9. Oh sorry, I hadn’t updated this page before commenting and you mentioned Wilders already, stoat :)
    He’s a hate mongering embarassing excuse for a person, alright.

  10. BPS, no i think ‘inciting violence’ would be understood more strictly than that. and they do target the violence as well. an analogy: imagine if i paid a hitman to kill someone. we wouldn’t want to say ‘it’s the hitman who committed the violence. paying him to do it was simply free expression’.

  11. On the one hand, think of how we might feel about Saudi Arabia blocking Gloria Steinem. On the other hand, Felps is just a publicity hound and a hate monger. Sure, he has a right to free speech, but protesting at funerals is wrong. A funeral is not a public place for protesting. I don’t really think he has much power to incite violence though. I have many relatives in the Christian Right, but as far as I can tell, they’ve never talked about him, positively or negatively. And I know that if they did talk about him, they would disagree with his message that God “hates” homosexuals, since they like the (somewhat condescending) formula “love the sinner; hate the sin.” I think Phelps is more interesting to the left than the right.

  12. BPS: I’m not sure who is incited, but one reading is that they incite violence against homosexual people, and that’s more than expressing views that make one want to throttle them. I supposes another reading is that they are such publicity hounds that they goad people to attack them, and that’s again different.

  13. Carl, if there were a group who were too often the target of discrimination and ‘bashing,’ and Steinem was claiming that they deeply offend against the society’s basic values, then perhaps she should be banned. However, she doesn’t do anything like that. She instead advocates for the group that gets targeted. So I think the cases are far from comparable.

  14. Basically, anyone claiming to know God’s mind, in any religion I know of, is a blasphemer.
    (Says this agnostic protestant).

  15. Very interesting discussion. Certainly makes the free speech vs. censorship arguments more interesting than I’ve heard before. And the differences between freedom in the Uk vs. US is also quite interesting. The U.S. is, in too many ways, a very black/white kind of place. Certain groups have been and are the favorite whipping boys/girls and it’s too often progressives and those on the left. Can we get equal time? (couldn’t resist)

    It’s outrageous what Phelps did at the funeral. If someone wants to argue he has the right to carry public signs like that, I think the family should be able to at least sue his butt for that kind of disgusting harassment.

  16. @jj:

    Of course you’re right that Steinem, unlike Phelps, would be unlikely to incite any violence in SA toward marginalized groups… though she might contribute morale to any Westernizers hoping to overthrow the monarchy, if they even exist. So, the government might label her a revolutionary in that sense. Still, you’re right that there is an important discontinuity between the two of cases.

    On the hand, while from our point of view, it’s easy to tell that Steinem is good and Phelps is bad, from the point of view of the Saudi government, Steinem is “bad” because she is a threat to traditional gender roles, the theocratic alliance of the state with Wahabbiism, etc. Hence it’s dangerous to let governments use the rule that “bad” people should be kept out, since it’s easy for such a rule to be abused.

    I guess the point is to try to set up a rule that keeps “good” people from being accidentally mislabeled as “bad” and punished, silenced, or excluded by the state. The US system is generally just to keep hands off as much as possible, so that the system can sort itself out. The UK on the other hand takes a more hands on role in deciding on when and where censorship is appropriate.

    I think the US system isn’t ideal, but it’s at least fairly consistent, so it’s much harder to get a “false positive,” so to speak. On the other hand, a UK-style hands-on system might be made to work if it was clear that underlying principle to be respected is, as you suggest, that the potential for violence be minimized and that marginalized groups be protected. The main fear is that a UK-style system is easier to hijack. But maybe you’re right that there’s no need to treat Phelps as anything other than what we know he is.

    I guess the main thing for us to do as people in the world (and not theorizers inventing the ideal system of government from behind the veil of ignorance or whatever) is to promote extra-governmental norms so that governments are more like the UK and less like SA. That way even a UK-style hands on government would be unlikely to abuse its authority to silence the bad.

  17. Carl – just an aside which doesn’t really address any of your main points, but I’m sceptical about the claim that the US system is more hands-off. I hear a lot more stories about people being denied entry to the US for all sorts of dubious reasons(!)

  18. Hmm, yeah, I suppose I’m thinking more about our attitude toward freedom of the press than immigration issues. Our attitude at the border can be pretty bad. Not as bad as when Australia’s John Howard ran for reelection on the platform “I kept Afghani refugees from fleeing to Australia!” (!), but still pretty bad, though this usually expressed as racism rather than moral suppression.

  19. Carl – ah I see what you’re saying. Although I’m not too sure that the press has less freedom in the UK than in the US. Freedom of speech doesn’t seem to be so deeply enshrined in law in the UK as in the US, but in practice, there doesn’t seem to be much government dabbling in what the press does (although who knows what’s going on behind the scenes anywhere).

  20. >I have many relatives in the Christian Right, but as far as I can tell, they’ve never talked about him, positively or negatively

    Fred Phelps would hardly be called Christian right. He regularly protests soldiers’ funerals (actually more often than he does gay funerals) and burns the flag.

    I also don’t think it’s fair to use the “incites violence” argument. Phelps does not tell anyone to be violent. He just talks about what he thinks God is going to do to, well, pretty much everyone, with a major focus on gays. Unless, God is influenced by Fred Phelps, I don’t think he is inciting violence, except of course violence against him.

    >There the case was made that his utterances likely to incite violence and extremism.
    Relating to Monkey’s views above about gaining influence – in this case Wilders aim was to show his hate filled film, Fitna, in the house of lords. It seems to me that to have given this platform to his views would have been to give them a legitimacy that they don’t deserve; and in suggesting that such rubbish is worthy of the house of lords’ attention might have very harmful effects.

    Doesn’t the threat of violence legitimize Wilders’ views? Isn’t that the exact point that he is trying to make. No hatred on the part of Wilders’ in the making of his movie can even compare with the hate espoused by the people he is showing in the movie. I don’t know whether or not there is something particular about Islam that fosters this, but certainly a large portion of modern day Islam teaches hatred and violence, and when a Dutchman cannot comment on that going on in his country, something must be done.

  21. the threat of violence legitimizes discrimination and racism?? j.t. jester, you’ve done a nice job here of showing that you have absolutely no familiarity with the muslim world. *a large portion* teaches hatred and violence?! whatever bubble you live in clearly doesn’t have a single muslim resident. and it’s your loss it doesn’t.

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