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What Americans misunderstand about the UK's Trump visa debate and free speech

Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images

It's not every day that the legislature of what was once the largest empire in history devotes many hours to debating whether an American reality TV star is a threat to the kingdom or merely a "wazzock" — an insult that, according to the Guardian, takes its name from a shovel used to hurl medieval kings' shit out of windows.

But such is the power of Donald Trump.

On Monday, the UK Parliament took up the matter of whether to ban Trump from the country. More than 500,000 citizens have signed a petition urging the home secretary to bar him from entering the country on account of his "hate speech," and an opposing petition calling for Trump's admission has more than 40,000 signatures. MPs spent more than three hours passionately discussing whether Trump's presence would foment racial hatred and could make the UK unsafe.

In America, this was widely seen as evidence that the UK has a very different approach to free speech than we do. But in fact, the difference is far narrower than it appears. Both countries have issued similar visa bans in the past. Indeed, the real difference may be that in the UK, the open, public debate over Trump's visa has drawn attention to the issue of free expression, while in the US similar decisions have been made quietly without public discussion.

The Trump visa debate seems like a British-American divide on free speech. But it's not that simple.

The debate ended without a vote, but at this stage it seems unlikely that Trump will be banned. Both Prime Minister David Cameron and Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn have denounced Trump's views but argued against the visa ban. And MPs from both parties argued that excluding Trump would be counterproductive and inconsistent with British values of free speech and political debate.

And yet, to Americans, the fact that the ban was seriously discussed as even a possibility might suggest that the UK has radically different views on free speech from those we embrace here in the United States. Indeed, UK law does allow the government to exclude foreign nationals solely because of their speech.

"Using any means or medium to express views which foment, justify or glorify terrorist violence or other serious criminal activity" is grounds for a visa ban, as is speech that "fosters hatred which might lead to inter-community violence in the UK" (emphasis added).

In other words, UK law anticipates that speech itself can be dangerous at a community level. Not because it directly incites violence but because it glorifies violence, or fosters "hatred" that could then, in turn, lead to harm.

That is indeed different from the approach required by America's own First Amendment, which generally protects speech that is offensive, hateful, or insulting.

But at least when it comes to visa policy, the practical difference between the US and UK turns out to be less significant than one might expect. When making visa decisions, the US government, like the UK, considers whether a particular alien might pose a threat to the public interest. And because a US visa is considered a privilege, not a right, the government has wide latitude to determine that a foreigner is a threat to public order or US interests — and to go far beyond what the First Amendment would ordinarily allow.

The real difference is that the US tends to frame that threat as the people themselves being the problem, rather than it coming specifically from their speech. But in practice, that can mean there is little difference between the two countries' approaches.

The US has done this, too, and it didn't look that different

Consider, for instance, an incident that is in many ways precisely the reverse of the current Trump situation: In 1981, the US revoked the visa of the British MP and Ulster Unionist leader Ian Paisley, on the grounds that his "presence in the United States is prejudicial to the US public interest." It didn't cite Paisley's speech as the problem, but rather Paisley himself, as his physical presence would be politically "prejudicial." But given that the US visit Paisley had planned was for a speaking tour to raise support for his political cause, that seems like a distinction without much of a difference.

Sure, you might argue, there are obvious differences between Paisley and Trump: Paisley was a prominent leader in the Ulster Unionist movement, and thus a key figure in the violent Northern Irish conflict.

Trump, unlike Paisley, has not raised a paramilitary militia or taken part in a violent civil war — all he has done is opportunistically spew hate about Muslims, immigrants, and any other person or group who offers him the chance for a little tough talk.

On the other hand, the UK government is presently deeply concerned about two kinds of threats posed by this sort of speech that could, as their standards put it, "[go] far beyond mere offense or discomfort." The first is of course the risk of worsening potentially violent Islamophobia against British citizens who happen to be Muslim. And second is the potential to feed into the narratives of violent extremist groups who wish to recruit British Muslims to commit attacks at home or abroad. (An estimated 700 UK citizens are believed to have joined militant groups in Syria and Iraq.)

That means that Trump's risk of "fostering hatred" against the Muslim community — or fostering a sense within the Muslim community that their government condones anti-Muslim prejudice — is not just about British opposition to bigoted speech, even if that was what the debate centered on. It could also seem threatening to UK interests in ways that Paisley's visit never could have been to the US.

All that said, it seems likely that the UK will ultimately grant Trump his visa, which likely means they've decided that his speech does not sufficiently risk "justifying or glorifying terrorist violence" or "inciting hatred" to a degree that would merit barring him. It's a process that is actually not so different from how the US evaluates this sort of thing. It just so happened to play out much more publicly, which, at least in the British view, was seen as demonstrating the country's commitment to a free and open debate — even if it might have looked like the opposite from across the Atlantic.