- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 1, 2006

LONDON — Mayor Ken Livingstone won a respite yesterday from a government-appointed panel’s order suspending him from office for four weeks for insulting a Jewish reporter.

The order — which raised profound questions about the limits of democracy and free speech — was frozen by a High Court judge who ruled that Mr. Livingstone could remain at work pending an appeal of the suspension, which was to have begun today.

The London mayor, nicknamed “Red Ken” for his leftist views, had harshly criticized the suspension by an unelected body, saying it “strikes at the heart of democracy” and violates his right to speak freely.

The three-member Adjudication Panel for England ordered the suspension after Mr. Livingstone asked London Evening Standard reporter Oliver Finegold — who accosted him at a party — if he was “a German war criminal” and likened him to a concentration camp guard.

The disciplinary board ruled that Mr. Livingstone had brought his office into “disrepute.”

Mr. Livingstone’s is the latest in a series of cases centering on issues of freedom of expression across Europe. Others include the cases of a British historian sentenced to prison in Austria for denying the Holocaust, and of 12 Danish cartoonists hounded into hiding over cartoons satirizing the prophet Muhammad.

Also under fire is a new British law that outlaws speeches and writing that “glorify” terrorism. The bill divided Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government and infuriated Muslims, who think it is aimed at crushing their right to protest.

Mr. Livingstone’s remarks to Mr. Finegold were born of a long-standing feud with the reporter’s newspaper, which the mayor has described as “a load of … and reactionary bigots” with “a record of supporting fascism.”

The mayor’s critics are equally virulent, but even some of the toughest of them believe his suspension is unwarranted.

The three-member Adjudication Panel of England is an unelected body that was set up six years ago by Parliament, under the control of Mr. Blair’s Labor Party, to deal with accusations of misconduct by local officials.

Since January 2003, the panel has dealt with 320 cases. Among the decisions made, three persons were disqualified from office for five years, 11 were suspended for a year and two for a month.

Mr. Livingstone has denounced the ruling on his case, saying, “Three members of a body that no one has ever elected should not be allowed to overturn the votes of millions of Londoners.”

That view was endorsed by one of Mr. Livingstone’s fiercest critics, London Daily Mail political commentator Peter Hitchens.

“No such body should exist,” Mr. Hitchens said of the Adjudication Panel. “The voters of London are free to get rid of Mr. Livingstone at the next election. It is their job to do so, not that of some committee.”

The issues raised by the suspension are not unlike those in the case of David Irving, a British historian who last month was ordered locked up for at least three years for speeches he made 17 years ago denying some details of the Holocaust.

“I come from a free country, and I’m not going to let anybody silence me,” Mr. Irving argued in his defense during an interview with Britain’s Sky Television that sounds ironic in light of the Livingstone case.

“Freedom of speech,” the historian said, “means freedom to say things to other people that they don’t want to hear.”

Britain lacks the written guarantee of free speech that appears in the U.S. Constitution, and restricts some speech under its Official Secrets Act and libel laws, which are tougher than those in the United States.

But Mr. Irving, like Mr. Livingstone, has received support even from his detractors.

“Irving is a repulsive man,” said political commentator Rod Liddle in the Times of London, but “it’s gone a bit far, this persecution of people for saying things.”

Mr. Irving’s views are “hateful,” said Peter Sain ley Berry, editor of the online newspaper EuropaWorld, but “writers, however bizarre their beliefs, do need defending, even in Europe.”

“If there is a time to nail one’s colors to the mast in defense of free speech,” the editor said, “it must surely be now.”

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