On Garron Helm and the Right to Utter Abuse
This must be less of an article than a statement on a right that seems to have vanished in modern England.
I begin by quoting an exchange of correspondence that I had on the 22nd October 2014:
I have become a regular reader of The Libertarian Alliance Blog over the last few weeks. I am contacting you to highlight the case of Garron Helm, who pleaded guilty to sending an offensive, indecent or abusive message (I think this must be under the Communications Act 2003) to Labour MP, Luciana Berger, and has been imprisoned for 4 weeks.
Obviously our political views are diametrically opposed, but I know that the Libertarian Alliance has a long and honourable history of protesting injustice and I do believe Garron’s treatment has been disproportionate and unjust.
I was wondering if you might be able to pen a few words about the case on your Blog, to highlight both the specifics and the general implications. I am sure you will be at pains to distance yourself from Garron’s political views, which is fine, but I would hope at least that the Libertarian Alliance might take an interest in the case and articulate the traditional position of free speech and free thought. These prosecutions represent a general threat to political liberty.
I hope to hear from you soon.
With Best Wishes,
I have my in-laws here at the moment, and am not familiar with the case. Can you tell me more about it? Just because we don’t agree with someone’s opinions is no reason to look the other way when he is punished for expressing them. I will try to make some comment.
Thank you for your e-mail.
The facts of the case are that Garron Helm, from Litherland, Liverpool, is a member of National Action, a British-based National Socialist youth group. On 7 August this year, Garron tweeted a photograph in which the yellow star of David was superimposed on an image of Luciana Berger, a Labour MP, with the hashtag ‘HitlerWasRight’. The tweet also contained the message: “Communist Jewess. Jews can always be counted on to show their true colours eventually.”
For this, Garron was arrested, had his home searched by police, and his electronic equipment confiscated, and he has been sentenced to 4 weeks imprisonment. All this happened despite the fact that he did not at any point make threats against Luciana Berger. He insulted her in a way that the court found to be racially-aggravated. Garron is a first-time offender, with no previous criminal record, had pled guilty, and had written an apology to the victim.
In the interests of neutrality, here’s a link to the liberal Guardian take on the issue. It’s a short article.
Garron has had a troubled background. This Mail Online article gives some information about that. Not that this is of direct relevance: Garron made his own decisions.
Ms. Berger has also complained about anti-Semitic tweets in the past. Ms. Berger is quite a strident advocate for the various pillars of political correctness: ‘anti-racism’, anti-sexism’ and so on. She has a close association with Hope Not Hate, I believe.
I do appreciate that The Libertarian Alliance will wish to distance itself from Garron’s political views, and I would expect you to make that plain in any comment you make, however I am raising the issue with yourselves due to the need to highlight state incursions on political liberty. Many people will find these prosecutions justifiable, or at least defensible, without comprehending that this case is part of a longer-term trend involving the erosion of free speech and free association. It is the speech that others do not want to hear that needs to be protected most by the courts. I would also observe that the courts are meant to be independent of the state and do not exist to enforce the state’s political objectives. This basic constitutional principle is being subverted. In my opinion, it is no exaggeration to say that what Garron Helm has suffered is a mini-show trial, especially given the way the media has covered the case.
I hope that provides enough information. If you’d prefer, if it makes things easier, I could write something and submit it to you for consideration.
I agree that this is monstrous, and I will certainly write something about it. The job description of an MP ought to involve putting up with any amount of non-threatening abuse.
My in-laws are here at the moment, so I shall need to squeeze the time out. But I will try to have something published tomorrow.
Thanks for bring the case to my attention.
This correspondence contains all the relevant facts of the case. Here is my comment:
1. As a national socialist, Garron Helm stands in a different ideological community from ours. This has no bearing on our duty to defend his right to express his opinions in any way that does not amount to a common law assault as this would once have been defined. No amount of abuse, regardless of how offended the recipient claims to be, should be a matter for the criminal law.
2. The only legitimate rights, in the liberal tradition, are to life and property. From these, we derive the specific rights to freedom of speech and freedom of association, among others. There is no place for any right not to be offended. As such, the law under which Mr Helm has been punished is itself a violation of rights. To put things bluntly, he was, before conviction, as much a dissident as opponents of the system were in the old Soviet Bloc. Now he has been convicted, he is a political prisoner.
3. The concept of “racial aggravation” was brought into the English criminal law in 1998. Until then, the traditional elements of a crime were the objective test of whether a criminal act had been committed and the subjective test of whether there had been a criminal intent. These elements have now been joined by motivation. For example, if you beat a black man up nowadays, you will be punished for the harm you caused him, and your intent to commit harm. If it can be shown that you had a particular dislike of black people, you will be punished for that as well. This is, in itself, a criminalisation of opinion, and is illegitimate and even totalitarian.
4. Returning to the matter of giving offence, no one has a legitimate right not to be offended. This is particularly the case where politicians are concerned. They should be fair game for any degree of abuse that stops short of a common law assault. If Miss Berger cannot go about her duties without calling for people like Mr Helm to be put in prison for insulting her, she is unfit to be a Member of Parliament. There was a time in England when parliamentary candidates were pelted at the hustings with rotten vegetables and the occasional dead cat. Perhaps it is right that this particular liberty of political expression has dropped out of our traditions. Even so, politicians ought to possess a reasonable firmness of mind when they are abused by members of the public.
5. I was invited by my correspondent to distance myself from Mr Helm’s acts. I agree that the expression of his opinion was intemperate, and may well show a certain unsoundness of mind. But I have a strong dislike of denouncing the morals or character or opinions of anyone who has suffered under an unjust law. I will only say that his punishment was wrong in itself, and it sets a bad precedent that may one day be used against anyone with a taste for sharply-expressed opinions about the people who rule this country.
In conclusion, Mr Helm is a political prisoner, and his case brings great discredit on the laws of this country and on their mode of enforcement.