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Even the far right must have the right to free speech

The conviction of Patriotic Alternative activist Sam Melia is an outrageous affront to liberty.

Andrew Tettenborn

Topics Free Speech UK

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Far-right activist Sam Melia may not be a remotely sympathetic figure. But his conviction in Leeds Crown Court last week should leave any supporter of free speech seriously concerned.

Melia was the Yorkshire organiser for far-right group Patriotic Alternative. Three years ago, he was also running an online library of far-right stickers. The stickers were available to download for anyone who was interested. They bore crass slogans like ‘Labour loves Muslim rape gangs’, ‘We will be a minority in our homeland by 2066’ and ‘Mass immigration is white genocide’. These stickers ended up being printed and posted by people across the globe.

In 2021, Melia was arrested and his home was raided by police. He was found to own a number of concerning items, such as a photograph of Adolf Hitler and a book by British fascist leader Oswald Mosley. Melia was subsequently convicted of both inciting racial hatred and facilitating ‘racially aggravated criminal damage’. He now faces sentencing, which could well result in time in prison.

It would be easy to see this as a vile racist getting his just deserts. But Melia’s conviction should actually worry us all. Yes, his stickers were crude, offensive and racist. But it should not be a crime to express crude, offensive or even racist views. Nor should it be a crime to possess and distribute such stickers.

There is no doubt that Melia is far right and bigoted. He proudly describes himself as a ‘white advocate’. But we cannot rely on censorship to defeat odious ideas. In fact, censorship only drives those ideas underground, where they fester without challenge.

What’s more, cases like this risk reinforcing a dangerous precedent that could soon reach us all. After all, Britain’s hate-speech laws have already been used to criminalise all manner of people in recent years. Even mainstream political views are now routinely treated by the authorities as hateful and bigoted.

Melia’s case risks bringing us into entirely new territory, too. One of the counts against him was for his use of stickers to express himself. This is what the charge of ‘criminal damage’ refers to in his case. Essentially, the court found that he had supplied the stickers knowing that the recipients might attach them to other people’s property without permission. This flimsy argument could be used against almost any activist in future. If you hand out stickers at a rally in support of, say, gender-critical feminism, you could end up in court on the basis that some of them are likely to be fly-posted.

While Melia’s case concerned stickering on other people’s property and on public property, even displaying political materials on your own home is apparently no longer allowed. Last year, Fulham and Hammersmith Council in London ordered a woman to remove gender-critical posters from her own front door. This was despite the fact that the content of the posters broke no laws. The council simply alleged that the posters were ‘transphobic’ and had upset people.

The gender-critical woman was then issued with a Community Protection Notice (CPN), a civil order originally intended to deal with yobs and thugs, which carries criminal consequences for disobedience. Thankfully, she is not going down without a fight. Last week, it emerged that a prominent lawyer had agreed to take her case pro bono. She will fight the CPN in court.

Under a Labour government the situation for free speech could get even worse. Already, shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper has promised to strengthen hate-crime laws, potentially extending the definition to cover acts of misogyny. Even purposefully ‘misgendering’ trans people by refusing to use their preferred pronouns could constitute a full-blown hate crime under Labour. Anyone who thinks these laws will apply only to far-right activists or proven bigots is woefully naive.

It’s a depressing scene. The establishment seems to have abandoned any pretence of caring about the right to free speech. It is a right that desperately needs defending, even in cases like Sam Melia’s, where the opinions being expressed are genuinely abhorrent.

The UK now finds itself on a path towards authoritarianism. It’s time to stand up for free speech for all, with no ifs and no buts. Even the far right must have the right to free speech.

Andrew Tettenborn is a professor of commercial law and a former Cambridge admissions officer.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Free Speech UK

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