Christopher Hitchens believed that the battle for free speech is “an all out confrontation between the ironic and the literal mind”. Today at the Royal Courts of Justice, a significant blow was struck for the forces of irony, humour and free speech against the dead, literal, bureaucratic mind.
Paul Chambers’ ordeal, which ended today when the Lord Chief Justice agreed that Chambers supposed “threat” to blow up an airport “did not constitute or include a message of menacing character”, is a grim reminder that what drives censorship can often be nothing more than an over-developed bureaucratic machine to which we feel obliged to adhere. At no point in this process, which has lasted over two years, did anyone genuinely believe that Chambers meant it when he tweeted “Crap! Robin Hood Airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together, otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!” Not the off-duty airport security worker who spotted the original tweet, nor his manager, nor the police, nor the Crown Prosecution Service – who shamefully decided to pursue the case anyway, pour encourager les autres – nor the presiding judges at the initial case and subsequent appeal. But there was a law, and a system, and it had to be followed, no matter that a young man would lose his job and be branded forever a menace as a result. Justice blind to reason.
Referencing Orwell in any article on free speech is dubious territory, but it really does pay to look at Nineteen Eighty-Four in this instance. The Party functions by creating a bureaucracy so enormous and all encompassing that it is actually impossible to escape. It thrives by narrowing language away to nothing – with the aim of not just obliterating language, but actually obliterating thought. There are no jokes — good or bad — on Airstrip One.
We do not, despite what our more dedicated conspiracists believe, live on Orwell’s Airstrip One. But we should nonetheless be wary of a system that, until today, placed process over principle. The Lord Chief Justice has today elevated the principle of free speech, humour and irony above process, small-mindedness and literalism.