Leaving aside the specifics of the case for a minute, it’s worth reflecting upon what this means: there are certain words that you can utter that, if they offend someone, can mean that a Crown Court can slap a Criminal Anti-Social Behaviour Order - ‘Crasbo’ - on you and place hefty restrictions on your freedom of assembly, freedom of movement and freedom of expression to the extent that you’re not really free at all.
Overton does not appear to be a sympathetic character. His actions, which led to his criminal ASBO, are indeed reprehensible. On his way home following an EDL demo in Newcastle, he came across an Asian family at Doncaster rail station. Taking ‘exception to them speaking in Urdu’, he ‘used racist abuse and told them to “get out of our country”’.
Overton certainly deserves to be challenged and chastised for his disgusting language and contemptible treatment of the family. But while he reportedly scared the family’s children, there is no suggestion he used violence in the attack. He didn’t throw punches at these individuals; only words. If we hope to live in an open and free society, feeling free to say what we think - even if it causes offence to some - is of primary importance. When the state has the power to deprive you of democratic freedoms because it disapproves of the ‘offensive’ words you use, this can have disastrous consequences upon the ability of all of us to speak freely.
This is not the first time such legislation has been used against EDL members to restrict their freedom of expression. In Birmingham, last December, two individuals pleading guilty to ‘disorderly conduct’ at an EDL march were given bans preventing them from engaging in EDL activities (including on the internet) and restricting them from attending any protests anywhere in the UK that weren’t within a 10-mile radius of Birmingham. So even if they attended the – completely unrelated – anti-cuts demo in London on 26 March, they could face arrest or imprisonment. The judge reportedly didn’t consider this to be a free-speech issue because he deemed EDL events to have ‘no purpose’, claiming: ‘You each have a right to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly’, but ‘I am persuaded that the only reason for [going on the protest] was to provoke, encourage and enjoy public disorder’.
Of course, the fact we’re talking about ‘fascist’ EDL members – as many leftie organisations will tell you – seems to mean that they shouldn’t be granted the democratic freedoms of right-thinking, middle-class liberals steeped in New Labour’s multiculturalist agenda. The members of this largely white working-class group are regarded as relics from a bygone era, Neanderthals needing to be re-educated or kept isolated from the rest of society, by force of law if necessary.
Despite the severe, illiberal punishment inflicted upon him by the courts, Shane Overton’s case has hardly registered as a blip on the radar of the national press. Perhaps if Overton had been a member of Unite Against Fascism, Hope Not Hate, or another such group there would have been outcry from people defending his civil liberties and trying to get his case noticed.
But there has been no outcry. Because left-leaning groups disagree with what Overton said, then not a word is spoken in his defence. Working-class ‘thugs’, it seems, don’t deserve a right to free speech. Indeed the ‘anti-Fascist’ publication Searchlight has (ironically) shown just what an authoritarian bent it has, by claiming that it will snitch to the state if it sees him breach his ASBO: ‘Searchlight will be watching closely to make sure Overton stays away from future EDL events.’
So blinded by their faux war against Fascism that they actively encourage the use of the state’s illiberal legislation, left-wing groups miss the fact that they could well be next. Police have made it clear they will be indiscriminate in also slapping similar restrictions on left-wing ‘extremists’. As DC Andy Haworth from the National Domestic Extremism Unit puts it: ‘We are working to support all police forces with Crasbo applications against any individual who persistently commits criminal acts at (or travelling to and from) Defence League demonstrations, regardless of whether they profess to support the Defence League or oppose it, in order to ensure future demonstrations are peaceful and lawful.’
As has been argued previously on spiked, much of what the EDL says may be unpleasant, but they are not a fascist organisation. In the name of tackling ‘right-wing’ extremism, both left-wing groups and the state are actually advocating and implementing far more authoritarian measures than the EDL has so far suggested.
In short, for those the state disagrees with and finds offensive, Britain could soon start to resemble an open prison. This is a far greater threat than anything posed by so-called extremist groups like the EDL.
Patrick Hayes is a reporter for spiked.