Freedom of speech in the United Kingdom suffered another blow yesterday when shock jock Jon Gaunt lost a legal fight with the regulator Ofcom, which had censured Mr Gaunt for having verbally attacked Michael Stark, a councillor from Redbridge who defended his borough’s decision to prevent smokers from being foster parents. Mr Gaunt’s rhetoric became increasingly heated during the interview, which took place in November of 2008, and he proceeded to call Mr Stark a “Nazi” and an “ignorant pig.” Mr Gaunt did, however, issue two on-air apologies during the same program.
The high court decision found that Ofcom was correct in taking action because Mr Gaunt “became increasingly abusive, hectoring and out of control,” and his use of “ignorant pig” had “no contextual justification at all and was said with such venom as to constitute gratuitous offensive opinion abuse.” Though Mr Gaunt was indeed vindicated for his use of the word “Nazi,” which the court ruled was protected political speech, the decision nevertheless begs the question of whether the regulation of speech by government agencies such as Ofcom is proper for a country that takes pride in its civil libertarian tradition.
Mr Gaunt was intolerant and rude to Mr Stark, but certainly his rhetoric did no measurable harm to Mr Stark, nor did his words incite violent behaviour or pose a threat to security. Listeners similarly do not need any protection from “offensive” content; those who did not appreciate Mr Gaunt’s behaviour retained the ability to switch to another station or simply turn off their radio.
The subjectivity involved in the regulation of speech to eliminate “offensive” or “indecent” content in a situation as harmless as Mr Gaunt’s renders the practice a dangerous enterprise for those concerned with free speech and expression. Nor is Mr Gaunt’s case exceptional; the British government imposes a great deal of restrictions on what may be said or written in the country. Ofcom prohibits news broadcasters from speaking their minds on the air, while broad interpretations of laws against incitement to racial and religious hatred have been used to bar people such as Dutch politician Geert Wilders and American talk-radio host Michael Savage from even setting foot in the country. Free speech implies the ability to utter unpopular or offensive statements, which is an important safeguard of liberty lest our own words someday be classified as such. Mr Gaunt is merely another victim of the government’s tight control over the airwaves.