Tommy Robinson’s Free Speech Crusade

A bunch of white men attacking Muslims in the name of “traditional values”

Democratic Football Lads Alliance march in Manchester, 2nd June 2018.

Tommy Robinson’s in the news again, and gaining support from keyboard warriors the world over (yes, some US commentators, and probably some from elsewhere, have jumped on the bandwagon and attempted to explain English law and politics to actual English people living in England). He’s claiming that his right to Free Speech™ has been breached, in a cynical ploy to attract support from ordinary people who don’t know the backstory.

He got nicked while already serving a suspended sentence for a previous crime, and the penalty for that is a return to prison to serve the full sentence, and then the additional jail time for the second offence he committed. He is in prison because he is a criminal, that’s it. There’s a comprehensive explanation of the legal position from The Secret Barrister, which goes over the reasons why and how Tommy Robinson committed offences that are nothing to do with Free Speech™, why he was sent to prison, and what the implications of his crimes are:

What Robinson and his supporters will tell you is that he was arrested for “speaking the truth” and was tried in a secret court and locked up in solitary with the key thrown away (if only).

Obviously, there are two sides to this story, and Robinson’s side is a load of old twaddle. If you want to understand the reasons why, and for an explanation of the trial and sentencing, you’ll have to read The Secret Barrister’s article. It’s detailed and accessible, and 100% factual — unlike Robinson’s yowlings.

Who is Tommy Robinson?

Tommy Robinson owns a tanning studio in Luton and is the child of Irish immigrants to the UK. Perhaps ironically, he is also a far-right mouthpiece having set up the EDL, one of Britain’s most active hate groups. At present, he is serving the latest of many jail sentences that he’s attracted for illegal behaviour while undertaking publicity stunts and gonzo journalism. It’s important to note that he has never been arrested for “activism”, “journalism” or “Free Speech™”, but for breaking the law (often knowingly) while engaged in those pursuits. In short, he likes to cause a bit of a scene and then play the victim when he has to face the consequences.

He currently has links with the Democratic Football Lads Alliance, an offshoot of the Football Lads Alliance (no, I’m not making this up), who held a nice little Gammon Parade in his honour in Manchester last weekend. They were meant to be protesting about immigration, Islamic extremism and Muslim grooming gangs (they’re only interested in Muslim grooming gangs and extremists, funny that), but as you can see from the footage below, it turned into a tear-jerking display of hero-worship. Lovely.

But it’s not about Free Speech and the law, you say?

Correct. All of the noise in the right-wing media about Free Speech™, and how Robinson is being silenced as part of some Illuminati conspiracy or whatever, is a convenient façade for the racist and xenophobic message he’s trying to project. There are hate speech laws in the UK, and he could probably find a way round them and spout his awful rhetoric legally, but it’s far more effective to shit the bed — I mean, break the law — and make a fuss on the telly to get attention.

This is a case of Robinson having no respect whatsoever for the law, Free Speech or justice for the victims he claims to be standing up for. All he cares about is his ideology and ramming it down the throats of as many people as possible, but he knows that there’s a sizeable opposition to it — so he needs to convince a few by obfuscating the message a little. Free Speech and justice are things we can all get behind, so when poor ickle Tommy’s been banged up for just doing his patriotic duty, he finds support from otherwise normal quarters:

OAPs at a “Free Tommy Robinson” protest in Leeds on 1st June 2018.

Just to clarify one last time, this is not about Free Speech. Tommy Robinson has exactly the same rights to free expression as the rest of us — which is not to say that the UK is perfect. We actually have quite a few limits on Free Speech — for good reasons. In this case, he specifically broke a reporting restriction which applied to professional journalists and rabble-rousers alike. That reporting restriction was necessary because any information about the case involved, factual or otherwise, could have influenced a jury and either required a retrial, or worse, that the trial would be completely abandoned. This would cost the taxpayer thousands of pounds, but more importantly, there are victims of these crimes that would not see justice done.

We are still forbidden from reporting on the original case, and we all understand why. Even reporting on Robinson’s activity was subject to a reporting ban until last week, because his actions and sentencing in themselves could have prejudiced the original trial — that’s how serious this is.

But there’s more to this than the legal aspect (which is very important). There is an attack on Free Speech — and it’s coming from Robinson and his supporters. They are abusing the concept of Free Speech to spread misinformation, and as a prop to garner support for their leader. It’s a common tactic of Far-Right groups, to build a respectable front (by saying that they are against extremism, or that they support victims — but only victims of brown criminals), and then carry on as usual outside of their squeaky-clean press release. Some people, like the Leeds grannies above, do get taken in by the nod to “traditional British values™”, but plenty more use it as a means of plausibly denying their true intent when pulled up on it.

Let’s consider it from another angle

Another way of looking at it is to consider what our reaction would be if Tommy Robinson had behaved like this away from a courtroom, but still in public. If he was filming passers-by, and yelling racial epithets and accusations of serious crimes at them, he would still be arrested and would have to, at the bare minimum, serve out the rest of his original sentence in jail — because he would have broken the law while serving a suspended sentence. These rules apply to everyone given a suspended sentence: it’s meant to be a deterrent.

He could have been arrested for all manner of things: hate crimes, harassment, breaching the peace. It’s just that in this particular case, he also committed contempt of court — which is a more serious crime in this instance because of the immediate threat to proper justice. Let’s be clear: if you’re arguing this on Free Speech grounds, you’re arguing for the free speech to harass and abuse minorities.

What about the victims of the crimes?

Well, Robinson and his crew don’t care about them either. If they did, they wouldn’t be jeopardising the trials of their alleged perps. But just like Free Speech, justice, and the integrity of the journalistic profession, they too are pawns in Robinson’s game. Not only is this another Red Herring, but he’s willing to further damage innocent people’s lives to promote his agenda. Disgusting.

One of the common refrains from hate groups like the EDL and DFLA is that the police, politicians and media are doing nothing to combat the alleged menace of immigrants coming over here and stealing our jobs, women and moving in next door to your nan. Unfortunately the Manchester Arena attack and Rochdale CSA scandal were like racist manna from heaven to these arseholes, and they’ve jumped on these two causes as an end to justify their abhorrent means. Here is an excerpt from one of the DFLA’s event listings on Facebook (I’ve left all the spelling and grammar mistakes in, there are too many to “sic” them all individually):

“#DFLA020618MCR is all about paying our respects to the victims and survivors of the terrorist atrocity @ Mancester Arena last year and the victims and survivors of child sexual abuse from grooming gangs. We are also peacefully protesting against successive labour council cover ups and police inaction with regard to decades of the disgusting child sexual abuse allowed to happen for vote rigging, pure cowardness appeasement of a certain demograph of the community and the absolute reprehensible SILENCE FROM THE MAINSTREAM TRAITOR MEDIA. They would all rather our kids get gang raped, humiliated, tortured, sex trafficked across the country, lives ruined, than speak the TRUTH and get this vile cultural shame out there and dealt with. Maybe a 500,000 lives ruined over the last 20 years because the authorities are just too lily livered to call a rapist a rapist. Shame on you wash that blood off your stinking coward appeasing hands.”

That’s tough talk. They don’t just want to stand up for victims, they want everyone else to get angry and stand up as well. It’s easy to get caught up in movements like this when passions are running high — it can look like the authorities are doing nothing, when in fact they are, but not broadcasting it from every outlet. There are some pretty good reasons that they don’t — for one the ongoing investigations that are no doubt happening but are probably also at risk due to angry racists sticking their oar in and diverting attention to where it’s not wanted.

There are communities that feel they’re not being listened to. But you know who’s always available to offer a listening ear? The Far-Right. We all need to work against them in this regard, because they’re outpacing us by great strides. In times of uncertainty, they’ve given us Brexit, Trump, and WWII. When the Arena attack and Rochdale CSA happened, the media and political voice was already well right-of-centre, and people were getting twitchy about immigration and race. It was a dream come true for the Far-Right, not only being able to capitalise on someone else’s tragedy and blame foreigners and Muslims, but also knowing that the popular narrative was already heading towards the right and half the work had been done for them.

So What’s the Real Threat to Free Speech?

It’s when people abuse it to spout hateful rhetoric or to “debate” ideas that no reasonable person would entertain. Have you noticed that the only things people demand we have a “debate” about involve restricting civil rights? So what’s the problem, you may ask. Well, because people couldn’t behave themselves and were abusing people that were different to them, hate speech laws were introduced over the last 30 years. That is a restriction of our freedom of speech — but a necessary one because we demonstrated that we can’t be trusted with Free Speech. Every barrier to freedom of expression is introduced for a reason. You cannot shout “fire!” in a crowded theatre unless there bloody well is a fire — because that shit gets people killed. You can’t use abusive language related to a particular minority — because that shit gets people killed. You can’t display Nazi insignia in several European countries — because that shit gets people killed. This is not a trivial matter.

Oh, but shouldn’t we expose these terrible ideas to daylight and argue against them? No. If we do that we lend them legitimacy and we give them the attention they crave. Fringe ideas get dragged into the mainstream by a naïve willingness to engage with them. The media is not a sixth-form debate (although it sometimes seems that way). Not all ideas have equal merit, but giving them equal airtime creates false balance. Some ideas are just awful, and we should keep them in the shadows.

Some aspects of press freedom, freedom of speech, and freedom of expression are subject to government control — not all of it for good. But the more we prod that particular sleeping dog, the more likely we are to get bitten. Tommy Robinson and other YouTube racists are the enemies of justice, Free Speech and civil rights — everyone’s rights. In spite of government intervention in many areas of our lives, we tend to legislate reactively in the UK. Let’s not give the government any more reasons to limit our Free Speech. Let’s give it the respect it deserves and use it wisely.