The Isle of Man is the freest country in the British Isles. We have the most dangerous motorcycle road race in the world. You are free to jump on a 1000cc Honda and kill yourself competing with the bravest and the best. As a fanatical biker, I am drunk on adrenaline each time I watch Michael Dunlop or John McGuinness whizzing past me at 190mph. There are fatalities every year, but we have always favoured freedom over cotton wool.
The Isle of Man has the most liberal gun laws in the British Isles. You can legally own a pistol and I drool over the five rifles nestling in my gun cabinet. The Isle of Man has the most magnanimous tax regime in the British Isles. It is a joy to live in a country that prizes and protects liberty, refusing to bend its knee to the slow creep of tyrannical nanny state legislation sweeping the rest of Europe.
March 13, 2018, however, could be the historic day on which the Isle of Man sounds the death knell for freedom and blows a trumpet blast for tyranny. On this day the oldest continuous parliamentary assembly in the world will consider creating laws restricting freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. It will debate how it can violate the two most basic human rights that are foundational to a free society and a civilised country.
Tynwald, the island's parliament, will deliberate erecting ‘access zones’ around hospitals, surgeries, and homes of persons providing abortion services. ‘Access zones’ is Orwellian double-speak for ‘buffer zones’. The zones will restrict access rather than provide access to any ‘protest about abortion services’.
It is a joy to live in a country that prizes and protects liberty, refusing to bend its knee to the slow creep of tyrannical nanny state legislation sweeping across Europe.
It will be a criminal offence carrying a maximum penalty of 12 months custody or a level 5 fine for ‘a person to place himself or herself close to, and importune, a person providing abortion services or a patient for the purpose of dissuading the person from providing, or the patient from using, abortion services’.
The proposed legislation gets worse and more ambiguous. ‘A person must not repeatedly communicate by letter, telephone, facsimile or electronic means with another person without their consent for the purpose of dissuading a provider of abortion services from providing abortion services.’
So, for example, pro-lifer X is tweeting or posting Facebook messages on the sanctity of life on his or her Twitter feed or Facebook page. Y, a woman considering abortion, is following X on Twitter or is a Facebook friend of X. Would X be criminally liable for repeatedly communicating by electronic means with Y for the purpose of dissuading her from having an abortion?
Or, if the MHK (Member of the House of Keys) representing my constituency is a woman considering abortion or a doctor providing abortion services, would it be a criminal offence for me to write to her or to the doctor, expressing my views against abortion?
March 13, 2018, however, could be the historic day on which the Isle of Man sounds the death knell for freedom and blows a trumpet blast for tyranny.
In South Dakota, a doctor is obliged by law to warn a woman seeking an abortion that she is terminating the life of ‘a whole, separate, unique, living human being’ and that abortion carries a significant risk of psychological trauma. Would doctors or midwives on the Isle of Man face prosecution if they expressed an established medical and scientific opinion to a woman considering abortion and told her that the foetus is ‘a whole, separate, unique, living human being’ with its own unique genetic blueprint?
Abortion and free speech are distinct issues. Tynwald is hurtling down a dangerous slope by conflating free speech with abortion, and piggybacking on the feelings of a minority to restrict the speech of the majority. What will the government consider restricting next?
Are our MHKs going to pass laws that make us the laughing stock of the free world? Do we want to be known as a backward country that creates restrictive speech codes that amount to blasphemy laws as in Islamic countries where governments rule by Sharia law? Or do we want to be on par with the freest nation in the world that protects speech using the First Amendment?
Freedom of speech is a universal human right. In fact, it is considered to be the ‘foundational human right of the greatest importance’. According to Article 19 (2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), a formally binding legal treaty ratified by 165 nations, including the Isle of Man: ‘Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include the freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.’
Are our MHKs going to pass laws that make us the laughing stock of the free world?
The legislation on ‘access zones’ flagrantly violates Article 19 (2) by prohibiting ‘freedom to . . . impart information and ideas of all kinds’ and imposes ‘frontiers’ on the dissemination and reception of information and ideas regarding abortion.
In 2014, the US Supreme Court upheld free speech by reversing a lower court ruling and determining that erecting ‘buffer zones’ around abortion clinics is a violation of the First Amendment. Buffer zones exclude ‘petitioners’ (not just protesters) from public sidewalks, streets, and other public thoroughfares, places that have traditionally been open for speech activities and that the Court has accordingly labelled ‘traditional public fora’, the judgement stated.
It also said that buffer zones deprive petitioners ‘of their two primary methods of communicating with arriving patients: close, personal conversations and distribution of literature. Those forms of expression have historically been closely associated with the transmission of ideas’.
The new law will restrict access to ideas and information. This is not about harassment or intimidation – there are already laws protecting women from harassment and protecting their safe access. The new law will in effect prohibit the transmission of any information to women seeking abortion. This is not just against freedom of speech and of assembly, but of access to information. The MHKs are infantilising and abusing patients by writing laws to stop them getting information. Why are our elected representatives so worried if patients find out the truth about the procedure they are about to undergo?
Tyranny begins with restrictions on free speech and free assembly and free access to information. If the state can gag its own citizens, it can gas its own citizens. The mark of a mature democracy is not clamping down on free speech but responding to bad speech with more and better speech or counterspeech, as Oxford professor Timothy Garton Ash notes in Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World. ‘An essential and defining feature of a mature, liberal, democracy is that, so far as humanly possible, it replaces external constraint with self-restraint,’ he writes.
In this historic debate, will our elected representatives do the Manx people proud by affirming that we are a mature, liberal democracy with free speech as its sacred cornerstone? Or will our MHKs subject our proud nation to global shame and humiliation by restricting the most fundamental human right in the oldest continuous parliamentary assembly in the world?