The death of Queen Elizabeth II has sparked a welter of discourse, from debates about the British monarchy and the history of imperialism to sometimes embarrassing wall-to-wall media coverage around the world. It’s also led to a shocking clampdown on free speech.
The trend began before the British queen had even died on September 8, when Carnegie Mellon University modern languages professor Uju Anya fired off a series of, to put it mildly, strident tweets criticizing the monarch. After Anya — who hails from Nigeria, where the British Empire ruled with brutal exploitation and violence — called the queen the head of a “thieving raping genocidal empire” and wished her “an agonizingly painful death,” Twitter erased the offending tweets, citing an unnamed rule violation. The company had acted in response to a wave of criticism from other users, set in motion by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos tweeting his unhappiness with Anya’s words.
This early incident was followed by a series of detentions and arrests across the UK at royal-related public events, where protesters were targeted, even charged with crimes, by police for criticizing the British monarchy using language nowhere near as extreme as Anya’s.
One Oxford protester was led away, handcuffed, put into a van, interrogated, and told he would be interviewed and possibly charged, all for shouting “Who elected him?” in the middle of King Charles’s proclamation. A woman was arrested at the same event in Edinburgh for silently holding a sign that read “Fuck Imperialism, Abolish Monarchy” before being charged under a law criminalizing “threatening or abusive” behavior. Edinburgh also saw a man arrested and charged for a “breach of the peace” after heckling Prince Andrew, as he marched in the Queen’s funeral procession, over his long friendship with the late billionaire pedophile Jeffrey Epstein. (Andrew, who remains free and not charged with any crime, has been credibly accused of engaging in sex with one of Epstein’s underage sex slaves and was stripped of his royal patronages last year as a result).
These weren’t even the most absurd examples. Barrister and activist Paul Powlesland was threatened with arrest in Parliament Square in London. His crime? Holding a blank piece of paper and expressing the intention to write “Not My King” on it. In a video posted by Powlesland, the police officer can be heard telling him the message he hadn’t even written “may offend people.” (Incidentally, being arrested for holding blank paper is exactly what Russian antiwar protesters have faced under Vladimir Putin this year). In another arrest near a separate funeral procession, a man was charged with a breach of the peace for being near the queen’s coffin while carrying eggs.
Right Royal Snowflakes
The first thing to say about all this is that the people most eagerly cheering this on (when they’re not ignoring it entirely) are the same right-wing culture warriors who loudly pretend they care about free speech and censorship.
Take the Daily Mail, so obsessed with cancel culture it has an entire splash page devoted to stories about it, where you can read about Dave Chappelle’s jokes, how the “high priests of cancel culture” resemble Salem’s witch hunters, about Grease being canceled — and, curiously, stories like this one scrutinizing plans for a “woke” Harry Potter series, which seems a lot like an attempted cancellation itself.
But some lines must simply never be crossed for the Mail editorial team, who apparently had to be rushed to a fainting couch upon reading Anya’s tweets. The tabloid denounced them as “appalling invective,” “disgusting,” and “vile” for attacking “the beloved Queen” while “millions of her subjects in the UK and abroad come to terms with her passing.”
Also piling on was TV personality Piers Morgan, who called Anya a “vile disgusting moron.” It was a hell of a pivot for the disgraced former tabloid owner, who just five months ago kicked off his new current affairs program with an extended monologue warning “all ultrasensitive, permanently offended snowflakes” that they were “not going to enjoy this show,” which he declared “a no-cancel zone.”
“It may even provoke trauma, because I’m going to constantly celebrate the one thing you can’t abide: free speech,” Morgan thundered at the time. “And that’s real free speech — not your kind of free speech, where only your opinions are allowed, and anyone with a different opinion has to be shamed, abused, and canceled, their careers and reputations destroyed.”
Morgan did criticize the police’s treatment of the protesters, to be fair, but it’s hard to see how he can square his outrage at Anya’s tweets with his jubilant mockery of anyone offended by opinions that aren’t theirs or his denunciation of the shaming and abuse of those who have them. Then again, it’s been a hard year; maybe we’re all a bit more sensitive than we were a few months ago.
It’s a good reminder that when you look past its opportunistic grumbling about cancel culture, the Right has repeatedly shown it’s a censorious threat to free speech. In the UK, it’s the Tories who launched a crackdown on online pornography, with predictably disastrous results, and pushed what Amnesty called a “deeply authoritarian” bill massively widening the police’s ability to restrict and crack down on protest. In the United States, it’s Republicans who have passed a spate of authoritarian laws criminalizing protest and banning the teaching (or simply speaking) of ideas they’re personally offended by, while rank-and-file conservatives have worked to ban books they don’t like, even resorting to threats and intimidation.
Lessons for the Left
But there are other, more important lessons that both the Left and liberals, particularly in the United States, should take away from all this.
Since Donald Trump’s 2016 victory, some progressives have tended to bemoan the US legal system’s broad permissiveness toward speech, even unpleasant, ugly speech, misguidedly blaming it for the upsurge in far-right politics (upsurges that similarly happened in countries with far more restrictive speech laws, like Germany). The UK has no such permissiveness, which is why its law enforcement can so easily clamp down on anti-monarchist and republican protesters the way it has — and also why its government is able to do things like simply put a gag order on the media when it’s about to report something inconvenient, still a nonstarter in the United States, despite the best efforts of bipartisan politicians.
Second, it’s a clear example of the folly of trying to use the law to protect society from offensive speech, which is always in the eye of the beholder. As the words of the British policeman’s warning to Powlesland — “Someone may be offended by it” — should remind us, people have all sorts of different views, and what may be merely edgy or outspoken to some can be beyond the pale and repugnant to others. It may seem absurd to those of us who read (or write for) Jacobin, but there are many who find insulting the monarchy or desecrating the flag as viscerally offensive as, say, a racist joke might seem to us. Which one gets targeted by any potential stricture against offensive speech depends entirely on who’s in power at any given time.
Finally, it’s a reminder of the way that well-meaning measures to restrict speech are inevitably turned on causes wildly divergent from their original purpose. Several of these protesters were arrested or threatened under the UK’s 1986 Public Order Act, whose infamous Section Five criminalizes “abusive words or behavior” that would cause someone “harassment, alarm, or distress.”
While that law was passed in response to the miners’ strike under Margaret Thatcher, it built on an earlier law, the Public Order Act of 1936, which was passed in the 1930s to restrict fascist organizing. That statute’s very similar Section Five outlawed the use of “threatening, abusive or insulting words or behavior” in public, and in the decades ahead would be turned incessantly not on fascists but on left-leaning protesters of various stripes, including those striking miners — ultimately laying the basis for British police to go after republican activists this past week. In short, the fewer restrictions there are on speech, the better it is for the Left, whose speech and organizing is often considered or framed as threatening, dangerous, abusive, and so on.
But there’s no need to be this Machiavellian about it. The freedom to speak your mind is a core principle that should be nonnegotiable for the Left and, in fact, one that socialists have fought hard to guarantee and to expand, to take it beyond the private and public spheres and into the workplace. And the UK authorities’ suppression of anti-monarchist messages, backed vocally and via quiet approval by conservatives, is a disgraceful abuse of police power that should remind us a political landscape hostile to the Left is never a good one to entrust repressive powers to, good intentions or not.
Remember: if in doubt, don’t be like the censorious crybabies on the Right.