How free should free speech be?

SHOOTING OFF YOUR FACE WON'T HELP FREE SPEECH ...

SHOOTING OFF YOUR FACE WON’T HELP FREE SPEECH – NARA – 515409 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

To say that law enforcement agencies are struggling with how to cope with the direction that technology has taken in the last decade is an understatement. Back when life was simple and there was no social networking and most people were still using landlines, policing was much simpler. If you wanted to be libellous, you needed to print something in a newspaper or a book. If you wanted to organise a heist or a riot or some terrorist activity, you probably had to do it in person.

Celebrities who are concerned about their reputations have been resorting to age-old legal machinery to protect their reputations which in the modern-day and age is just not up to the job. An injunction granted in a court of law in one country has little or no jurisdiction in another. So you may not be able to name the latest dubious liaison by a premiership footballer, but someone from another country can. It can then be retweeted by someone else and so it goes on until it’s trending and everyone knows.

I happen to think that free speech is one of our most important rights, but people can say and put into bits and bytes some pretty vile rhetoric. The authorities walk a knife-edge between overreacting and contravening the sacred right of free speech and allowing such vitriol to go unpunished. The Crown Prosecution Service has recently decided against prosecuting a man for a homophobic tweet he made about divers Tom Daly and Pete Waterfield, but the fact that they considered prosecution shows how seriously they are taking it.

Then there was the infamous case of Paul Chambers who faced a fine of just under £3000 and a criminal record for his joke tweet about blowing up Robin Hood airport in January 2010 following flight delays. I’m sure the sense of relief he felt when the court overturned the conviction on appeal was palpable but again – it shows the sense of gravity with which these actions are considered.

There is a need for consistency. A man who recently posted a message on Facebook suggesting that all soldiers should die and go to hell after 6 British soldiers died in Afghanistan got off scott free. Another man who posted vile comments on his Facebook page about the missing girl, April Jones, was sentenced to 12 weeks in jail. Both comments were despicable, but why was one sent to jail and the other allowed to go free?

The legislation being applied to social media was never designed for the purpose and it is time for a free and fair debate about what is and is not OK to say and print and for new purpose-built legislation to deal with today’s technology. I don’t envy the lawmakers their task though, what a minefield.

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