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Free speech is the real loser in Terry v Ferdinand

Kevin Rooney
John Terry 300x225 Free speech is the real loser in Terry v Ferdinand

(GETTY IMAGES)

The least troubling aspect of the John Terry case for me is the revelation that footballers shout offensive and unpleasant obscenities at rivals in the heat of a football game. Even those of us who cannot lip read surely did not think they were saying ‘please pass me the ball’. And while I in no way endorse Terry’s despicable choice of language or the connotations associated with such words, I do find it troubling that this banal revelation can produce such a frenzy of moral outrage and a clamour for draconian new restrictions on free speech in football.

The list of insults traded by players is clearly unedifying and if it were not for the current mood we could have remained in blissful ignorance of the cruel jibes that pass for banter on our football fields.  Yet behavior that has for many years had no discernible effect on wider society has now been defined as a major problem in need of tough action, bans and rules. We saw a similar frenzy in Scotland last year when chants and songs which had been sung at Celtic v Rangers games for decades were criminalized overnight by politicians. Saying the wrong thing or singing the wrong song in Scotland is now an ‘offensive communication’ that can now land you in prison for up to five years.

John Stuart Mill, the 18th century philosopher, framed the UK’s early attitude to free speech and tolerance though the ‘harm principle’.  Mill believed that in order to allow people to live in a free and tolerant society people should be allowed to say anything they want as long as no-one is directly harmed.  Mill acknowledged this would mean sometimes having to listen  to views which we would find obnoxious but felt this sacrifice was worth making in order to protect the broader principles of free speech and tolerance.

But Mill’s harm principle has now been all but abandoned in in favour of a new principle that says you can say anything you like unless it causes offence.  Now it is not necessary to prove that words used by someone have caused actual harm, just that they have caused offence.  Since offence is subjective it becomes impossible to measure: in effect the victim can define offence. This led to farcical exchanges in the debate over the new Scottish laws with some arguing that they found the sign of the cross offensive when performed ‘aggressively’ by rival Celtic fans.

Nor it seems does offence even have to be taken by the victim to prompt the authorities to step in.  It was not Anton Ferdinand who reported Terry but an off duty policeman watching the game on television who used his lip reading skills to gain a prosecution. This is not new.  Last year 300 Rangers fans filed a complaint against Celtic manager Neil Lennon for an alleged racist slur against a black Rangers player. Lennon was arrested and the case was only dropped when El Haj Diouf , the player involved, came to Lennon’s defence  to say he heard no such words.

This situation is the inevitable result of a new culture which is turning fans into amateur sleuths, constantly on the look-out for offensive words to be reported to the authorities.  And no-one is immune.  Rio Ferdinand has used his brother’s case to make a stand on the need to kick racism out of football.  But Rio has now become a victim of the word police himself after people objected to his description of Ashley Cole, a Terry supporter, as a ‘choc-ice’: perceived by many as an insulting term for a black person with white attitudes.

We should all be concerned about the construction of a new speech etiquette dressed up in the politically correct language of tolerance, anti-sectarianism and anti-racism. It is illiberal, censorious and authoritarian, a speech code where other people tell us what is and is not acceptable to say in a civilized society. It is not easy to love the likes of Rangers fan Steven Birrell (who posted anti-Catholic statements on his Facebook) or Liam Stacey, who posted drunken racist abuse of Fabrice Muamba after his collapse earlier this year. I do not condone their use of language or deeply unpleasant behaviour, but criminalising young men for words not actions will do nothing to confront the structural problems of contemporary racism. In the current climate, prison and a criminal record is a fate that undoubtedly awaits countless more young working class men who fail the emotional correctness tests laid down by others.

The irony of all this, of course, is that under the guise of zero tolerance of racism, sexism and homophobia,  a spectacular intolerance is on display. The new moral arbiters can barely conceal their contempt for the uncouth ill-educated young men who populate British football both on the field and in the terraces.  Writing in The Sunday Times Ian Hawkey suggests that we move towards ejecting fans from games for racism, homophobia and for ‘four letter rants’.  Hawkey concedes that this may well leave our stadiums half empty but claims that ‘for those who remain however…football might become a more civilized experience. It must be worth a try’.

Football players are not role models or politicians. We need to stop watching their mouths, start watching their feet and resist these illiberal attempts to cleanse the game of aspects that some commentators have deemed offensive.  Never was Mill’s message more pertinent – that being forced to put up with a few distasteful words is a price worth paying for tolerance and free-speech.

The Independent Online is partnering with the Battle of Ideas festival to present a series of guest blogs from festival speakers on the key questions of our time

Kevin Rooney is the head of social science, Queens’ School, Bushey.

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