I am neither a booster nor a detractor of badgers, the 2000 Rose Bowl notwithstanding. I am, however, a booster of free speech, and a detractor of bullies. Therefore, today I tell the following to the government of the United Kingdom, with all respect that is due: back the feck off or we'll put a boot up your arse.
I'm inspired to utter such unpleasantries because an official agency of the United Kingdom is attempting, to the best of its weak-chinned ability, to threaten an American webhost for hosting a UK site.
The American site is NearlyFreeSpeech.net, a webhost; the UK site is "Stop the Cull," now found at www.badger-killers.com. "Stop the Cull" is firmly opposed to a proposed culling of badgers in England; the culling is apparently being promoted as a method of reducing disease in cattle. "Stop the Cull" believes the culling is inhumane and not based on sound science.
Here's the problem: Stop the Cull engages not only in pure petitioning behavior, like publishing the names and office contact information of UK politicians who support the cull. It also uses tactics that many see, not unreasonably, as intended to threaten or even endanger their opponents and their families. See, Stop the Cull publishes the home addresses of its opponents, including but not limited to politicians supporting the cull. In a country where violence and threats from animal rights activists are increasingly prevalent, this is a cause for concern for those named and their families. Given the UK's limits on gun ownership and self-defense, the preferable outcome — a few citizens blowing the heads off a few animal rights activists in the course of defending themselves, pour encourager les autres — is not the likely result.
Publishing home addresses of political opponents rarely has anything to do with the marketplace of ideas. As I have argued before, though sometimes an address is relevant to a story, in politics it's usually a tool of intimidation and harassment — an attempt to silence debate, not encourage it. That's not to say it's outside the protection of the First Amendment here in the United States — that's a discussion for another post.
The UK government doesn't like the implied threats of violence against its officials and its citizens and their families. I am sympathetic to that sentiment, if not to the methods they are willing to use as a result. However, the UK government also doesn't like Stop the Cull from publishing the names and office contact information of government officials. In other words, the UK government doesn't like Stop the Cull providing information to allow UK citizens to petition their government, a privilege inherent in civilized society.
The government of the UK has attempted to censor Stop the Cull in several ways documented at NearlyFreeSpeech.Net's blog. First, as anyone familiar with the recent UK fetish for prior restraint of speech, the government persuaded a compliant judge to issue a remarkably broad injunction. [Note: I have hosted the documents posted at NearlyFreeSpeech.net here, to make it more difficult for the UK government to censor them, should it find a way to hinder NearlyFreeSpeech.Net.] That injunction prohibits the defendants from publishing, either themselves or through others, the personal or work contact information of anyone involved with the organization or implementation of the cull, specifically including government ministers. In other words, the injunction prohibits saying that Minister Smith of the Department of Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs may be written to at specified Department headquarters address or email address or called at a specified Department number. The way I read the injunction, it prohibits linking to a government web site with that information. The injunction further warns:
Any other person who knows of this Order and does anything which helps or permits the Defendant to breach this Order or who otherwise undermines or frustrates the effectiveness of this Order or any of the said undertakings may also be found guilty of contempt of Court and may be sent to prison or fined or their assets may be seized.
So. Stop the Cull edited their website hosted in the UK, but put up a mirror site hosted by NearlyFreeSpeech.Net. Here's where the cross-Atlantic bullying comes in. NearlyFreeSpeech.Net received a threatening letter from the Treasury Solicitor's Department. No particular government employee was brave enough to identify himself or herself in it. Much of the letter is taken up by disclaimers that the folks at TSol — as they call themselves — really support free speech. This is a rhetorical device; it has approximately the same function as the phrase "with all due respect," as used, for instance, in the sentence "with all due respect, TSol, you are ineffectual thugs, devoted to indefensible ends and failures at achieving them, as one would expect, given that your fathers' seed was weaker than last week's tea and your mothers routinely awoke in unfamiliar bins." Anyway, in addition to chatting about how much they lurv free speech, TSol threatens. TSol makes some very persuasive points about why Stop the Cull is engaging in conduct that may threaten individuals, and about how most of us wouldn't like having our personal contact information being published by activists seeking to threaten or inspire violence. The problem is familiar to anyone who has heard me say that vagueness in legal threats is the hallmark of thuggery — TSol ambiguously conflates publication of home addresses, on the one hand, with publication of the names and government offices of government figures, on the other hand. By its threats, TSol attempts to make them equivalent. They are not. Government officials are public servants. Making their office contact information secret is not the mark of a democracy. Can such information be abused? Certainly. That's not a justification for insulating them from the people's right to petition them at the place they do the people's business.
TSol seems to recognize that it has little legal basis to threaten a site in the United States:
Clearly, the publication of personal contact information in the knowledge (or constructive knowledge) that such publication may lead to harassment of others, is illegal. We do not wish, however, to cite the relevant law in these circumstances.
This is known as the "Canadian girlfriend" school of legal argumentation. Nevertheless:
However, should you choose not to assist us in this matter, we reserve the right to seek an enforcement order. This may result in significant costs, which Defra would seek to recover
from you. We note from other correspondence which we have seen that you have ‘limited resources’ and we do not favour this action, given that it may put the very future of your
organisation at risk.
Additionally, if you choose not to co-operate, this may become a criminal matter and we will contact the relevant authorities within your jurisdiction. As stated, this is not our preferred
action, but without your co-operation and in light of the seriousness of the matter, we may have no other option.
Here is the heart of the threat — comply with a court order that forbids both publication of personal data and the identities and official contact information of government officials, or we will seek to bankrupt and jail you, even though you are in another country with its own legal norms.
From their delightful response, it seems that NearlyFreeSpeech.Net will not be backing down. TSol will have trouble censoring or retaliating against American web sites in any court of the United States. They might get court orders and arrest warrants in the UK, which they will have trouble enforcing here: I think extradition is highly unlikely, and Americans have started to enact laws to limit enforcement of UK judgments in the United States, as is necessary in light of the UK's abject failure to protect freedom of expression. But if I worked for NearlyFreeSpeech.Net, I wouldn't be vacationing in the UK any time soon.
Now that I think of it, even though I don't work for NearlyFreeSpeech.Net, I won't be visiting the UK any time soon. That's because if TSol persists in its threats against NearlyFreeSpeech.Net, I'm going to publish the government official names and office contact information that TSol is seeking to suppress. You should think about doing the same. If TSol actually begins any legal proceeding against any American person or entity for publishing the names or office contact information of any UK government official, I'm going to work until that information is published on a hundred web sites. If TSol succeeds in obtaining any order against any American site or individual, I'm going to work until that information is published on a thousand web sites. Moreover, I respectfully offer our services in finding pro bono legal assistance for NearlyFreeSpeech.net.
TSol will fail. They can't sue or arrest or threaten us all.
I'm not going to publish home addresses and similar contact information, even though TSol is seeking to suppress it, because (1) it's not necessary to make the point, and (2) publication of the home addresses and similar information of political adversaries is intimidation designed to suppress dissent. Why stand up for Stop the Cull at all, if their tactics are contemptible? Freedom of expression requires it. It doesn't matter that Stop the Cull uses tactics calculated to terrify people into being silent or retreating. The Phelps clan wouldn't support any speech but their own, nor would the Nazis at Skokie, but we protect their rights anyway, so that all of our rights are safer.
Back down, TSol. You'll lose this one. As to the individuals threatened and intimidated by Stop the Cull's publication of home address, I have a recommendation: reform UK law to expand the right to self-defense. Badgers might not need culling. Eco-terrorists, on the other hand . . . .
Last 5 posts by Ken White
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