Free speech is the whole thing, the whole ball game.

by HST UK on October 19, 2012

She keeps singing from beyond the grave, that same old phrase “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”. Evelyn Beatrice Hall’s statement is often the base defence for advocating free speech. Speech implies saying something aloud and in public, although nowadays a lot of people do the majority of their talking online. It is here in the UK, that freedom of communication and expression is truly tested.

Whilst we may disapprove when somebody celebrates a murderer, considers them an outlaw and an anti-hero, or states that the death of a soldier is just in the context of an unjust war, in theory if we believe in free speech we should defend the right of these individuals to make such statements, even if they are idiotic and in poor taste.

Britain was shocked by the horrific deaths of two female Police Constables in Manchester. A man who had an axe to grind with the Police hours after this tragedy decided to scrawl on his white Reebok t-shirt a message. It said: “One Less PiG Perfect Justice” on the front, and “KiLL A COP 4 Fun.co.uk Ha, haa?” He received a jail sentence of eight months (although four of those months were attributed to an existing drug charge) for displaying writing that intended to cause harassment, alarm or distress. The man’s actions were pathetic, given that the whole city, if not the country was in a state of deep shock, but does the man not have a right to express himself?

The man, who had mental health issues, was stupidly misguided. Some might say it would have been swift justice if a passer-by who read the primitive spider scrawl turned around and chinned him, but taking the law into one’s hands is never a good idea. Could the Police not have cautioned the man, confiscated the offending article of clothing and made the guy walk home topless, causing him public embarrassment, and to suffer a shiver of gooseflesh and the peculiar sensation of red raw erect nipples?

News stories like this continued to appear. There has been a strong public reaction to the tragic case of April Jones, a five year old girl who disappeared in a small Welsh town. Thousands searched for her in the unforgiving terrain, and at the time of writing she remains missing. A nineteen year old male posted comments comparing the April Jones story to the disappearance of Madeleine McCann in 2007, alongside some ill-advised jokes about the case on Facebook. The teenager was punished for this with a 12 week jail sentence. This situation was complicated by the fact that a mob descended upon the teenager’s home, and wanted to knock some sense into the teenager. There was quite literally a reaction of public outrage. The teenager was apparently inspired by Sickipedia and posted his comments whilst drunk. Had the teenager said what he posted on Facebook in a pub, worst case scenario he would have got lamped, best case scenario a few guilty laughs.

What do I mean by guilty laughs? Picture this, you’re standing in a pub and one of your more laddish pals pulls out his flashy phone and says “Take a look at this”, he clicks a few buttons and pulls up a text message from the archive. He reads aloud a racist joke. You feign that you are shocked and consider chastising him, but you don’t bother. You read the joke on screen and it simply wasn’t funny. Occasionally this conversation will take place without the phone, and the joke, say for example this time around to tie in with current affairs is about Jimmy Savile. This time around you laugh at the joke, it catches you by surprise. You feel immediately guilty afterwards.

Getting back to the matter at hand, every tragic worldwide news story is chewed over online. Some people offer sincere sympathies to the victims, a minority whilst foolishly posting under their real names will poke fun at murdered children and soldiers killed in combat, mock cancer suffers and celebrate animal cruelty. I think if people can process the intention behind the hatred, which in the majority of cases seems to be a pathetic cry for attention, and see through the trolling, then not responding in such a needlessly over the top fashion would likely mean there would be fewer trolls.

What should be happening is that the guilty parties, rather than appearing in court, are invited to attend independent public enquiries, and asked why they have said what they’ve said, and challenged to explain themselves in a rational debate. Likely the trolls would go quiet, and sheepishly learn the hard way that what they’ve said has upset some people, and likely they would think about their future conduct. Sending people to jail for expressing themselves isn’t going to help anyone.

The gross overreaction is making a few stand-up comics twitchy. It’s only a matter of time before someone goes too far on television and sends a whole nation into mob mode, baying for justice. I think we’re getting whipped up in a reactionary whirlwind. Public opinion spreads quickly over the internet. Communication is rapid, and at times thoughtless. There isn’t enough time to step back and think before we react to something.

The problem also lies in the platform. Nobody has a god given right to a Twitter or Facebook account, you sign up for it, and agree to the T’s & C’s within the parameters of such Social Networks. In effect you may be giving up certain freedoms when you sign up. One of those might include the political right to communicate one’s opinions; this perhaps might explain why people are getting charged so harshly.

In the UK freedom of expression is undercut by a whole host of exceptions in common law. From those that are integral such as incitement to racial hatred, to the more ambiguous – indecency including corruption of public morals, to the downright odd – treason including imagining the death of the monarch. These exceptions are being used in the prosecution of individuals that have made Social Media Faux Pas’ and trolled online. Currently there are no laws specific that can be used to punish certain behaviour on Social Networks which is why the recent cases have been landmarks.

The biggest negative to come from all of this will be that in the future people will decide not to speak out, not to disagree or waver from popular opinion. The dissenting voices will be subdued even if they state their case in an appropriate manner. It may not be a perfect world when an individual is free to express their hatred and bile, but it is better that they get shot down by rational argument as opposed to being beaten down by draconian sentencing.

– RJW

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