Well okay, it’s not fine. It is almost certainly not true, it is very rude, it coarsens our political discourse, it widens divisions, and I really really wish people wouldn’t do it.
But when pro-Brexit protesters call a Remain-supporting MP a ‘Nazi,’ that most certainly is political speech and should be covered by free speech protections.
By contrast, it is not okay to physically intimidate anyone, whether that person is is a man, a woman… or an MP.
Since both of these things happened to Anna Soubry MP this week, journalists and social media users have been conflating the two incidents. Brexit supporters have complained that they get called Nazis and fascists all the time, so why (they ask) are people along for the police to get involved?
To be clear—the calls for police involvement are to protect MPs (or anyone, really) from threats and harassment. The Public Order Act 1986 has clear prohibitions against threats and (crucially for this case) threatening behaviour.1 And the Protection From Harassment Act 1997 places limits on repeat behaviour that can have a cumulative effect of making someone feel unsafe and threatened. Free speech activists should not be instinctively opposed to such measures. Nor should the peaceful pro-Brexit protestors who want to express their anger at Mrs Soubry’s ideas.
1. The Public Order Act also contains measures against ‘hate speech’ which are problematic from a freedom of expression point of view. But those sections are not under discussion woth regards to the recent incident.