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English rules on free speech

March 13, 2010 |  8:33 am

I go on a busman's holiday to Britain at least once a year, and one of my diversions is to update myself on the differences between British and American attitudes toward free speech and other 1st Amendment values. Of course, Britain doesn't have a 1st Amendment, which explains today's news that a court has struck down the membership rules of the British National Party.

The BNP is a far-right party that opposes immigration -- particularly "coloured" immigration -- and used to require that members be white.  That provision was removed after a challenge from the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, a government watchdog. But the BNP is still in trouble because of what American lawyers would call a race-blind provision: Although the whites-only clause was removed, a judge found that the party still discriminated because part of its credo is a belief in the "continued creation, fostering, maintenance and existence" of an indigenous British race.

The judge's decision on one level is common sense: An organization devoted to a white Britain, even if it's technically open to nonwhites, isn't likely to attract many. But in the U.S. it would violate the constitutional right of free association to order an organization to revise its basic beliefs, repugnant as they may be to many. I think we in the U.S. have the right take on this, but as in other areas -- news coverage of crime and national security, for example -- Britain is proof that culture as well as constitutional principles shape a country's attitude to free speech.

--Michael McGough
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