Skip to main content
elizabeth renzetti

In a way, you can hardly blame Western governments for being so opportunistic at this moment. Their citizens are shaken, unsettled by shadowy threats and by leaders who use every chance to drop the words "safety" and "threat" into public discussion.

Why wouldn't they use this critical moment to their benefit, to ratchet up security laws, increase surveillance and tighten controls over what constitutes legitimate dissent? They will take what the voters give them, and run.

Look no further than Britain's Conservatives. It took less than a week after winning a majority of seats for David Cameron's government to propose a ban on certain beliefs and opinions that are counter to "British values" or which are a "threat to the functioning of democracy."

Freed from the tedious free-speech anxieties of their former government partners, the Liberal Democrats, the Conservative government has decided it's had enough of tolerance. Don't take my word for it. Take the British Prime Minister's.

"For too long, we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our citizens: as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone," Mr. Cameron said in a statement last week. "It's often meant we have stood neutral between different values. And that's helped foster a narrative of extremism and grievance."

That's quite an extraordinary thing to say: Now it is not enough just to obey the law. Now you have to share a set of "British values," or your thoughts and opinions may be criminalized, too.

Mr. Cameron's government will outline its planned crackdown later this month, but its broad directions have been telegraphed to the British media, and were laid out explicitly in the Conservatives' election manifesto. It will include things like "extremist disruption orders," aimed at stopping those who would radicalize young people; prohibiting extremists from speaking on university campuses; allowing employers to "check whether an individual is an extremist and bar them from working with children;" and limiting activities that have the "purpose of overthrowing democracy."

Which could be just about anything, of course, depending on whose lens you look through. Mr. Cameron is ostensibly targeting terrorist recruitment – in January, he denounced "this fanatical death cult of Islamist extremist violence" – but why cast such a wide net? Who determines what is "extremist" speech? What, precisely, constitutes "overthrowing democracy?" Does an anti-poverty march on Downing Street count?

As the BBC's Mark Easton writes, there is an uncomfortable shift at work in favour of security over liberty: "There is, it seems to me, an inherent contradiction between banning orders and the core British value that one should be tolerant of different viewpoints.

"History tells us that the development of new ideas of governance and government require people to think radically. Extreme views are necessary to test the wisdom of the mainstream."

Mr. Cameron also plans to expand Britain's security agencies' ability to eavesdrop on its citizens' electronic communications and phone calls, a proposal that British critics, with typical irreverence, have labelled "the snoopers' charter." In this, the British are following the lead of the French government, which this month passed a similar expansion of surveillance powers, with limited judicial oversight, over the protest of French legal scholars and free-speech advocates. For a few moments after the Charlie Hebdo murders, the world was united in support of the principle of free expression; it's a horrible irony that those very murders are being used as political capital to shut that principle down.

Our own troubling terror-related bill, C-51, is on its way to becoming law, minor hiccups in the Senate aside. The government has ignored the protests of statesmen, privacy watchdogs and even a coalition of tech entrepreneurs, all of whom have worried that the legislation is too sweeping and too expression-chilling in its scope. As the legal scholars Kent Roach and Craig Forcese recently wrote in The Walrus, the proposed bill has good, bad and ugly bits – and the ugly parts are the ones that impinge on expression. "The speech provisions of Bill C-51 will cast a chill on any opinion touching upon the issue of terrorism – including opinions that are politically extreme and irresponsible, but that are far removed from actual or threatened terroristic violence," they write. "Those opinions will not disappear, of course. They will persist in secret, renewed by a sense of grievance."

Interestingly, the one country that seems willing to roll back government's security overreach is the United States, which has lived under the long shadow of the Patriot Act for 14 years. Now a bipartisan effort is under way to restrict some of that act's grossest abuses, mainly to do with the state collection of U.S. citizens' communications data. Maybe we can watch them, instead of each other, and learn.

Report an error

Editorial code of conduct