A few incidents covered in the British press this week have got me thinking about free speech.
I read yesterday about a 5-year-old girl who was admonished by her teacher for discussing religious topics with her classmates. The girl's mother recounted the incident in an email she sent to several friends, asking them for prayer. However, the email ended up in the prinicipal's hands and, since the mother is also a receptionist at that school, she was faced with losing her job for making "allegations about the school."
The incident has opened a firestorm of discussion about religious freedom, especially that of Christians, in a land that still allows Christian prayers and faith to be taught in its state-run schools.
The second thing that got me thinking was a minor controversy raised by television comedian Jo Brand, after she made rude comments about Margaret Thatcher on a BBC programme. Viewers complained about Brand's comments and the BBC was left defending its decision to air the show. What Americans may not realize is that this most recent furor follows several decisions on behalf of the BBC to discipline or remove other presenters (Jonathan Ross, Russell Brand and Margaret Thatcher's daughter Carol Thatcher) after they made controversial comments.
It's difficult for me to know exactly what to think about this BBC situation. Were these presenters on American programmes, I'd say that they have the right to say what they like. However, the private corporation employing them would likewise the right to either support or fire them at their own discretion. No doubt the decisions would be driven by the bottom line (and, of course, meeting minimum industry decency standards), as expressed by the programme's viewers. But these presenters all work for the BBC, which is a government institution funded directly by the people of Britian. (Everyone with a television must pay a hefty monthly TV licence to receive the television signals). The impression I get is that anyone working for the BBC has to make sure his or her comments will be palatable to the majority of the population.
Clearly there are big differences between this religious incident and these media cases, and I can see that people on both sides of each controversy have reasonable grounds for their opinions. But all of this just gives me the impression that I have to be much more careful here in England about what I say at home.
Being in Britain may often be very similar to being in America, but then things happen that make me realize it is a very different cultural climate, after all.