William Morris. Commonweal 1886

The Abolition of Freedom of Speech in the Streets

Source: “The Abolition of Freedom of Speech in the Streets” Commonweal, Vol 2, No. 32, 21 August 1886, p.161;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

The trial of the Socialists which ended on Friday 13th was not so well reported by most of the newspapers as some ordinary petty larceny case would have been; the Pall Mall Gazette, for instance, which was so hot about the Dod Street affair last year, not even noticing it till the last of the three days. Nevertheless, it is a matter of importance to the public generally, and not to Socialists only; for both the counsel for the prosecution and the judge laid it down as a matter beyond doubt that no persons can meet in any part of the public highway, however little the traffic over the meeting-place may be, however little the inconvenience caused by the meeting may be, without committing that terrible crime, ‘Obstruction’. And the penalty for committing this crime is a fine which only a well-to-do person can pay; that is to say, for this crime a well-to-do man has to pay a fine, and a workman is sent to prison, there to be treated exactly as a felon is treated. Now apart from the preposterous exaggeration of a slight offence, and the punishing it as severely as if it were a crime, let all persons who are interested in making any cause popular by bringing it home to people who are too poor, too busy, or too shy to enter a hall, — let all such, I say, mark that they cannot any longer hold meetings in any public place except the parks (at present they are open to them) without rendering themselves liable to the above-stated penalty.

In giving his evidence on Thursday 12th Sir Charles Warren was very particular in asserting that it was obstructions and not meetings that his police interfered with, and he declined to accept the word ‘meeting’ from the counsel who was eliciting his evidence; but now it is clear that all meetings are obstructions when held in a public place, and it is Sir Charles’s duty to see that they are at once dispersed. And this not in London only, in one town or another, but throughout the length and breadth of the British Islands. Furthermore, it is not only the police who have it in their power to prevent any one obnoxious to the Government opening their mouths to speak in the open air, but it seems by last week’s trial that any person can take out a summons against the persons so offending. Thus a political, religious, or temperance meeting is at the mercy of the first cantankerous person, neighbour or otherwise, or of a political or ecclesiastical enemy. In other words, it is a mere phrase without truth to say that freedom of speech exists in this country.

Last year when this very thing seemed to be threatened by the action of the police at Dod Street, the whole of the public who were not openly mere reactionists were prepared to help in sustaining the right of free speech; whereas now, when the affair has entered into a far more important and threatening stage, they seem to be apathetic. The probable reason for this is that Mr Saunders foolishly let out what the real reason was for the police persecution, whereas the present attack has been made with a cunning which reflects much credit on the police and authorities as pupils in the school of Castlereagh. The dry official answers of Sir Charles Warren in the witness-box the other day left little to be wished for from this point of view.

But indeed the question for the non-Socialist bodies who may wish to address their fellow-citizens in the open air is not now, as it was last year, whether they will allow the Socialists to be crushed without helping them, but whether they will allow themselves to be crushed. They must understand that it is not a matter of the relative suitability of the corner of Bell Street as compared with other meeting places. Once more, all meeting in any public place except those specially set apart for it (if there be any such) is contrary to the law.

All who are on the side of progress may be well assured that if they do not take up the matter now the mere reactionists, who are the common enemies of us all, will look on with a grin of pleasure, possibly not unmingled with surprise, while the other progressive bodies stand by to see the Socialists persecuted. This is, in fact, their revenge for Dod Street, or rather, their counter-stroke in the war for the free expression of opinion.

To speak plainly, we Socialists are not such fools that we do not understand the matter. Sir Charles Warren was put into Colonel Henderson’s place after the Trafalgar. Square riots that he might make a stroke on us by driving our propaganda out of the streets. The authorities probably would have no great wish to suppress the religious meetings, or those of Radicals or Secularists even; but if it must be done in order to get rid of us — well, it must; ‘and let’s hope’, would be their thought, ‘that they won’t notice it or care about it much’.

It only remains to be said that if they do not notice it, so much the worse for them, and to repeat that such petty persecution will not get rid of the discontent of the poor, nor of the only remedy for it — Socialism.