Americans who have expressed suspicion and bewilderment at the vehemence with which CNN’s Piers Morgan has criticized the constitutional settlement of his adopted land will presumably be relieved to learn that it is habitual. Morgan, whose endless sense of moral superiority has led him to the conclusion that he alone hopes for “fewer school shootings” has turned himself into something of a joke during his time in the United States — serving unwittingly as a salutary lesson against preening while ignorant and inspiring hordes of people with no discernible talent into the belief that they, too, might one day have their own television show.
His pronouncements have become the stuff of legend. Soon after emigrating, Morgan announced that the Constitution of the United States was “well intentioned” but “inherently flawed.” Later, he got a little more specific, exposing his well-developed Messiah complex and promising to “keep ‘banging on and on’ about the epidemic” of gun violence in America. Why? Well, “because somebody has to, right?”
Collymore, if you are unaware, is a fellow Brit: a former professional footballer who is now enjoying a post-career role as a pundit. Because vast swaths of England’s soccer fans are unspeakably awful, Collymore’s broad exposure and energetic criticism have made him the target of some hideous messages on Twitter — some of which, all too sadly, have focused on the color of his skin. Understandably, he has had enough, and in consequence has become an admirable campaigner against racism and other unforgivable biases. So far, so good. Full steam ahead, Mr. Boatswain!
And yet, in pursuit of his commendable aims, Collymore has shown an alarming tendency to involve authorities where they do not belong — a tendency that Morgan has wholeheartedly endorsed. “Seems to be a few who think that calling someone a W*g, ni***r or c**n and being arrested for it is an infringement of FoS,” Collymore wrote recently, before labeling such people “Idiots.” Well, yes actually, Stan: Having people arrested for using ugly words is a perfect example of “infringement of freedom of speech.” In fact, it is pretty much the textbook definition. Now, Collymore is certainly correct to note that saying ghastly things has, alas, been broadly criminalized in England — “racist/homophobic/sexist hate messages . . . are illegal in the UK,” he records — but he is absolutely wrong to conflate timeless rights and the temporary rules that affect them.
It is disquieting how many arguments in favor of censorship rely on the fatuous principle that “It’s. The. Law” — as if this, and not the merit of its being so, were the question at hand, and as if fundamental human rights simply disappear if the government of the day chooses to ignore them. Explaining his behavior on BBC Radio 4, Collymore proclaimed that he was surprised by “how many people, and I think particularly people that watch too many American soap operas, claim it’s a freedom-of-speech issue.” “Yes,” he conceded, “in theory you should be able to say exactly what you like but if you came up and said exactly the same things to me in the street or at a football match or at a theatre, you would be arrested.”
In Britain, perhaps you would — albeit perilously inconsistently. But, one might ask, “So what?” The argument against governments’ arresting people for speaking is a simple and compelling one: That the state has no business deciding or codifying what is “offensive” or “alarming” or “hateful” — and, by extension, what is “acceptable” speech — and that conferring on the potential victims the capacity subjectively to define those things is inherently dangerous. There is a crucial difference between saying something that is hurtful to another human being (an act that at every stage does involve only words) and threatening to kill him (an act that prefigures physical violence). Would that the British had shown the same willingness to draw a distinction as have their cousins across the pond.