By Hudson Kingston
Freedom is a concept that many philosophers and law professors could wax eloquent on for a full career without settling on a definition. Perhaps it is true that: “Truth and freedom are difficult concepts to understand. They can’t be grasped by the mind.” These are the words of a prisoner of conscience who spent six consecutive years behind bars in a country that refused him liberty because he clung to freedom as he saw it. The country in question is Scotland.
Stephen Gough’s story is longer than can be summarized here, and it is somewhat hard to believe. He submitted to indefinite detention in near-solitary confinement while the people he cared about became alienated from him because he refused to put on clothing. Regardless of his righteousness or lack thereof, he has a “logically coherent” argument for his freedom to live as he pleases and he was willing to pay the price for it. At times his story comes off as tragic, but it is also interesting in this discussion because it proved a near-impossible question for the legal system in Scotland. The high court has determined that his nakedness is a breach of the peace earning a two year sentence on every reprise; he would not leave prison or appear in court unless he was naked – leading to further arrests; and though the system did not want to hold him, it begrudgingly followed its law.
This is until recently when the Scottish legal system lightened up and seemingly let Gough ramble home, naked as can be. His version of freedom apparently means liberty without condition, the ability to express himself in spite of presumed potential to offend and frighten others. His struggle seems to be a stark example of the argument, attributed to Utah Phillips:
The state can’t give you freedom, and the state can’t take it away. You’re born with it, like your eyes, like your ears. Freedom is something you assume, when you wait for someone to try to take it away. The degree to which you resist is the degree to which you are free.
It is unlikely that Phillips was thinking of a man like Gough but one never knows.
Admittedly, this was not a situation where many people would militate for his freedom of expression. No high-profile NGOs came to be his standard bearer. His solitary commitment to his ideal is part of what makes his victory so difficult to reconcile – it is not as if he shifted the populace to his side to gain his civil right. But as the Neil Forsyth, the journalist who wrote about Gough, said: “It appeared that Gough and the Scottish legal system had unwittingly created the perfect legal quandary. How to release a naked man who is in prison for being naked?” The law school equivalent of the sound of one hand clapping. Perhaps someday a groundbreaking legal seminar will seek to answer this fundamental question.