The Magazine

No Speech, Please

We're British.

Mar 2, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 23 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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Britain's politicians care so much about constitutional protections for human rights that they have two sets of them--the centuries-old traditions laid out by parliament and precedent and the newfangled European Convention on Human Rights, written into British law in 1998. Neither of these stopped Britain from becoming the first European Union country to bar an elected European legislator from its territory for his political opinions on February 12.

The Dutch MP Geert Wilders heads the Freedom party, which holds 9 of the 150 seats in the Second Chamber in The Hague. He has been preoccupied with militant Islam at least since November 2004, when the filmmaker Theo van Gogh was murdered by a Muslim fanatic in Amsterdam, and Wilders's own name turned up on a jihadist hit list. In March 2008, Wilders released Fitna, a 15-minute film, on the Internet. It details contemporary Islamist outrages and locates their inspiration not in any perversion of Islam but in specific suras of the Koran itself, which Wilders likens to Mein Kampf and urges authorities to ban.

When two members of the House of Lords invited Wilders to give a screening of his film, the rabble-rousing Labour peer Lord Ahmed threatened to put 10,000 people in the streets. The home secretary, Jacqui Smith, warned Wilders that he would not be admitted to the U.K., since "your statements about Muslims and their beliefs, as expressed in your film Fitna and elsewhere, would threaten community harmony and therefore public security in the U.K." Wilders came anyway, on a British Midlands flight packed with 50 journalists and cameramen. When he was turned away as promised, he called British prime minister Gordon Brown "the biggest coward in Europe."

This episode, taken together with the ongoing attempt by Wilders's opponents in the Netherlands to have him prosecuted for discrimination and incitement to hatred, reflects the European confusion about what free speech is and how it is best protected. Author Kenan Malik, a veteran of London antiracist movements, was most disturbed that "Wilders was penalized not for what he did but for what someone else may have done to him. That is neither logical nor just." There was confusion on both sides of the Channel. Dutch foreign minister Maxime Verhagen protested to the British government before and after Wilders's arrival, but he had said of Fitna when it first came out: "Freedom of expression doesn't mean the right to offend." Many would say that freedom of expression is a synonym for the right to offend.

Two things are being mixed up: freedom of speech and freedom of movement. Under the old, pre-EU dispensation, Britain would have been entitled to turn Wilders around at Heathrow. Just because a country protects free speech for its own citizens does not give it any obligation to admit any foreigner for any reason. During the Cold War, the United States permitted its citizens to spout Communist propaganda to their hearts' content, but it also passed the McCarran-Walter Immigration Act in 1952 to bar foreigners considered ideologically undesirable. By the end of the Cold War, there were 368,000 people--Gabriel García Márquez and Pablo Neruda among them--to whom the government said: No pasarán. More recently, the State Department withdrew its visa to the Swiss Islam scholar Tariq Ramadan without feeling the need to explain its actions in detail.

The problem is that Britain has--by act of Parliament--subordinated its own laws to the European Convention on Human Rights. Brussels, not Westminster, sets the rules. In the human rights context Wilders is a fellow European. And the British action sets a new precedent for relations among EU citizens. That is why promoters of the European Union were so upset by Wilders's exclusion, even on the left. Daniel Cohn-Bendit, for instance, called it "indefensible."