Free Speech losing in the UK?

In the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, a group of Sikh “protesters” forced the cancellation of a controversial play described as a “black comedy” that centered around rape and murder at a Sikh temple. The details are in this article (registration is gratis) and some outrage is in this short lead editorial.

Here is what is most worrisome — the notion that free speech must give way to the (violent) protests of the community (and the concurrent lack of protection by peace officers). The attitude is nicely encapsulated by these two reactions:

“Free speech can go so far,” [Mohan Singh, a Sikh religious leader] said. “Maybe 5,000 people would have seen this play over the run. Are you going to upset 600,000 Sikhs in Britain and maybe 20 million outside the United Kingdom for that? Religion is a very sensitive issue and you should be extremely careful.”

The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Birmingham, the Most Rev. Vincent Nichols, who had said the play would insult people of all faiths, said that calling it off was the “right decision” given the genuine worries about public safety. His spokesman, Peter Jenkins, said: “In the weeks leading up the play we felt very strongly that a play set in a temple would deeply offend the Sikh community. We did not ask for it to be cancelled but for the setting to be changed to, say, a Sikh community centre. With freedom of speech and artistic licence must come responsibility and the responsible thing to do is to change the setting.”

There you have it: free speech that may have some political, religious or artistic point of view fettered by the community’s entitlement not to be insulted.

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