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Watch your mouth!

National | Or it'll get wiped by "Operation Napkin": British speech codes aggressively enforced by undercover cops out to dinner on the expense account

Issue: "UNbelievable," June 17, 2000

in Gloucester, England - F.M. Alam remembers when the group came into his restaurant. There were 10 of them, all regular customers of the little Indian restaurant, as he recalls. It was obvious they'd been drinking, and they started to get louder as the night wore on. Still, one of the men was celebrating his 51st birthday, so no one really paid any attention to the jokes and curses coming from the table. No one except for the two women at the next table, that is. They seemed to be unusually interested in what the revelers were saying. When the party finally broke up, Stephen Nichols and his friends staggered out to the sidewalk. That's when two uniformed officers materialized out of nowhere to arrest Mr. Nichols, the birthday boy himself, as Mr. Alam and the other waiters looked on in shock. The two women, it turned out, were undercover police officers taking part in a new sting operation designed to enforce British speech codes, which prohibit, among other things, "racially aggravated threatening words." Posing as diners, police in the western city of Gloucester are infiltrating ethnic restaurants to catch patrons who verbally abuse their waiters, who are typically Indian or Chinese. Mr. Nichols was the first person arrested in the probe, which goes by the code name Operation Napkin. But Gloucester police vow he won't be the last. "Racist behavior is unacceptable," said Chief Inspector Dean Walker. "The constabulary is now taking a proactive stance in relation to racist offenses rather than waiting for people to report them to us." Just how "proactive"? On the night of Mr. Nichols's arrest, another diner was reportedly detained for questioning, on the grounds that he had mimicked the accent of his Indian waiter. Eventually, police decided his speech was not sufficiently offensive, and he was sent home to sober up and think on his ways. Speech codes are nothing new in Britain, where common law has recognized a link between speech and action for hundreds of years. But in America, where liberals have only recently begun pressing to include speech among a growing list of "hate crimes," Operation Napkin could serve as a warning: Big Brother, as it turns out, is not merely watching you. He's listening. There is no doubt that ethnic minorities put up with a great deal of abuse in Britain, particularly outside the big, cosmopolitan cities like London-and no one would mistake Gloucester for a cosmopolitan city. About two hours west of the capital by train, it's a relatively insular town with a struggling economy and a blue-collar populace. Its downtown pedestrian mall, three blocks long and paved in red brick, is marred by shuttered storefronts and graffiti. Shahi Balti sits nearly at the end of this mall, directly in the shadow of Gloucester's famous cathedral, begun by William the Conqueror in 1089. Early in the evening it's a pleasant little place, with maybe 20 tables surrounded by pink walls hung with paintings of Hindu gods. But Shahi Balti, like other Indian restaurants throughout Britain, becomes less pleasant after 11 p.m. That's when most pubs have last call, forcing patrons to take the party somewhere else. More often than not, "somewhere else" means a nearby Indian restaurant, where the food is cheap and the staff-"well mannered, smaller, and different," in the words of one national newspaper-make easy victims. Almost any Briton can tell stories about drunken hooligans invading the Indian restaurants. Typically they show up in large groups, heckle, curse, and berate the staff, then refuse to pay the bill. One cab driver in Gloucester tells of watching a man urinate on the floor while his friends looked on. Given that sort of abuse, most people in Gloucester seem to support the tactics of Operation Napkin. "At the end of the day, it is all about educating people to understand other people's cultures," said Carol Francis, who chair's Gloucester's Race Equality Forum. And the police insist they are acting in the best interests of the law-abiding citizenry: "Our aim," said Inspector Walker, "is to act in the interests of the restaurants and other diners who are offended by racist behavior but feel reluctant to intervene." Ironically enough, however, Mr. Nichols's purported victim told WORLD he wasn't particularly offended-and certainly never felt threatened. "You get it everywhere," said Mr. Alam, a 22-year-old with dark eyes, a ready smile, and softly accented English. "French restaurants, Italian restaurants, even English restaurants. We often hear things like this. We try to ignore it.... He [Mr. Nichols] wasn't saying anything direct to us; they only talk amongst themselves. I was too busy serving my customers to notice." Although he believes police efforts like Operation Napkin are well-intentioned, Mr. Alam told the arresting officer that he didn't wish to press charges. "The police said to me, 'They shouldn't be saying these things.' I said, 'Ma'am, it's the end of the day. You can't control what they say. You do what you think is best, but we don't want to do any charges.'" Nevertheless, Mr. Nichols has been slated for a two-day trial in July, charged with using "threatening, abusive, or insulting words ... within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm, or distress." He has been ordered not to enter Shahi Balti restaurant pending his trial date. But Mr. Alam is more forgiving than the magistrate: "He's welcome," he said of Mr. Nichols. "If he's in a good state, if he's sober. At the end of the day, all our customers are welcome."

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