Skip to content

Freedom of expression under attack

Law Library
|Written By Damian J. Penny
Freedom of expression under attack
You Can’t Read This Book: Censorship in an Age of Freedom by Nick Cohen, Fourth Estate, 2012, pp. 330, $19.99 in Canada

Britain’s plaintiff-friendly libel laws are so infamous, they’ve even inspired a gag on South Park. In the notorious “Trapped in the closet” episode, young Stan Marsh — thought to be the reincarnation of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard — announces that the “religion” is a giant scam. Scientologist Tom Cruise, furious at this gross insult to his faith, declares, “I’ll sue you — in England!

The real-life punch line: “Trapped in the closet” did not air on British television, because of the very real possibility that Cruise would successfully sue any broadcaster who tried.

A 2002 Vanity Fair article about legendary New York restaurant Elaine’s was neither written by a Brit nor published in Britain, but that didn’t stop film director Roman Polanski from successfully suing the magazine for an allegedly defamatory anecdote included in the piece. (Supposedly, he was trying to pick up women at Elaine’s shortly after the murder of his wife, Sharon Tate. A jury found that this was devastating to Polanski’s reputation, which had been completely unsullied until the magazine came out.)

And then there’s Saudi banker Khalid bin Mahfouz, who used the British courts to sue American author Rachel Ehrenfeld over allegations in her book about terrorism financing, which had never been published in Britain. Or Holocaust-denying “historian” David Irving, who sued U.S. author Deborah Lipstadt for being labelled a Holocaust denier in one of her American-published books. Irving lost (in a court battle recounted in Lipstadt’s excellent book History on Trial) but it’s damning enough that the British legal system allowed him to think he had a case.

When it comes to the issue of defamation, Britain’s court system is overwhelmingly tilted toward plaintiffs, and in practice, these plaintiffs are usually much more wealthy and powerful than those who so offended them. Things hit rock bottom when corporations and football stars started obtaining “super-injunctions” which not only prevent anyone from spreading the allegedly slanderous allegations, but even revealing the existence of the injunction itself.

In You Can’t Read This Book, Nick Cohen, a columnist for Britain’s Guardian and Observer newspapers, identifies today’s major threats to freedom of expression. The British legal system, which affects defendants all over the world (like Ehrenfeld, whose connection to the U.K. was that a few British people bought her book through Amazon) is just one. The idea that religious believers have a “right not to be offended” is another.

When the Ayatollah Khomeini issued his 1988 fatwa calling for the murder of Salman Rushdie, the western media and literati — with a few dishonourable exceptions — rushed to his defence. By 2006, when the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten came under fire for publishing cartoons of Mohammed, something had changed. While the cartoonists were placed under armed guard, and angry mobs around the world attacked anything that even looked Danish, the consensus seemed to be that Jyllands-Posten — and, by extension, Denmark — had been asking for it.

The Internet is hailed as a magnificent tool for fighting censorship and government or corporate control, and Cohen concedes that, in some cases, it’s worked. Any Briton who wants to watch “Trapped in the closet” or read about Polanski’s dating adventures can easily find it online.

That’s a double-edged sword, of course: radicals and would-be censors have been adept at using the Internet as well. For example, the story of the “blasphemous” Danish cartoons went viral, with more embellishments added the further it spread.

Moreover, Cohen makes a point that Internet enthusiasts tend to forget: the web is available to the oppressors, too. Democracy activists may use Facebook and YouTube to spread their message, but dictators can use the same services to mass their supporters in response. The governments of Belarus and Iran use the web to track dissidents. China has built the world’s most advanced Internet “firewall,” with the help of western technology companies. Google withdrew from China rather than censor its search results. Its competitors have not.

I take issue with Cohen’s condemnation of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision, which, people tend to forget, came about after a political documentary wasn’t allowed to air on television. It’s too bad Canada didn’t rate so much as a mention, either, despite our own wrangling over the issues raised in You Can’t Read This Book. (Among Canadian media outlets, for example, only Ezra Levant’s Western Standard magazine published the Danish Mohammed cartoons and promptly found itself on the wrong end of a human-rights complaint.)

Otherwise, there is little to criticize about his important, enlightening, and often infuriating book that illustrates how freedom of expression remains under sustained attack in what should be the freest era in human history. I recommend you read You Can’t Read This Book while you still can, especially before the British legal system gets its hands on it.

  • Canadian Style Freedom of Expression

    Canada has the notrious Human Rights Commissions pseudo judicial entitie presided over by three Kommissars where a defandant is prevented from facing his / her accusers and truth is no defense. These entities are model on USSR jurisprudence. Uncle Joe Stalin would be proud.
  • Irving is a Historian not a "historian"

    Leo Lennox
    The article describes Irving as a " Holocaust-denying “historian”". Fistly, the author gratuitously throws in the label "Holocaust denying" - not necessary at all to make his point.

    Then "historian" in quotes!!! Read his books. They are indeed history books in which he rarely expresses his own opinions ... and I have not so far come across any claim that he is a Holocaust denier - except from those who don't want others reading the history he has uncovered.

    For anyone who can't wade through history books go to YouTube and seach for David Irving's speeches ... and then make your own assessment.
  • D. Irving a light in darkness

    Tony Black
    David Irving is probably the best thing that have happened to Great Britain literature since Shakespeare's time. And he definitely writes a truthful, softer and easier to read English than Winston Churchill ever could hope for and you are not bothered with WC constant name dropping were all are old friends as soon as they could be presumed to have looked into his crib after birth or been sighted across the street by chance.
  • RE: Freedom of expression under attack

    You ignore the fact that Irving is one of the most prominent victims of censorship, with his prison term in Austria for having given a speech 16 years before - something most self-professed believers in freedom of speech just ignored. Few had the courage to stick up for him publicly, afraid of being branded "deniers". It is the people like Irving who voice outrageous opinions who need protection, not the conformists who parrot the party line of the day. Additionally, the British system saddled Irving with all of Lipstat's costs and legal fees, although she herself was actually heavily financed by others with an interest in discrediting Irving. So it is isn't as though the defamation laws can be used without fear of consequences if unsuccessful.
  • Only when one's own ox is being gored

    Double Standard
    Whether Mr. Penny approves or not, Mr. Irving's historical books were required reading at several US military colleges as works of history, and the judge at the Lidstadt trial praised Irving's work as a historian.

    Mr. Penny apparently failed to notice that Mr Irving was arrested in Canada for having a different opinion on a certain matter of history than the conventionally accepted opinion. Mr. Irving's opinion may offend Mr. Penny, but it is just a little precious to hear Mr. Penny whine about freedom of expression when it comes to Mr. Levant, but not Mr. Irving.

    Freedom of expression is an all or nothing proposition. It is not something you can choose to support only when your ox is not the ox being gored.
  • Received Wisdom is a Lie

    I suggest that you actually pick up and read a David Irving book before you casually accuse him of being a "Holocaust Denier" (whatever that is).
    You are no better than the baying animals who crowded the streets of the Muslim world denouncing Salman Rushdie without so much as having picked up his book.
    Your casual slight shows the depth of your ignorance and your willingness to follow what you are told.
    I'm not sure someone like you deserves to mourn the loss of freedom of expression. You are voluntarily enslaved by others' opinions as it is.
  • About Freedom of Expression

    Freedom of expression is OK unless it is evil intended - if people want to have rights, they come with responsabilites. Look around you and see how much shi** and disrespectful comments and lies are published in the media "every single day". So freedom of expression yes, as long as it is in an ethical way, with integrity. Otherwise a big NO.