In defence of vitriolic speech

It looks like the UK Crown Prosecution Service’s (CPS) threat to treat online crimes with more severity has already become a reality. A few days ago, a man was jailed for one year for writing a hateful Facebook post.

In the aftermath of the Manchester terror attack in May, Keegan Jakovlevs wrote ‘Let’s kill every Muslim’ in a Facebook post. He pleaded guilty to ‘publishing material with the intention of stirring up religious hatred’.

There is no question that this is an abhorrent and hateful thing to post. However, these kinds of extreme posts must be put into perspective. Jakovlevs wrote those words as part of a longer post in response to the Manchester attack. It read: ‘Thoughts with all the families in the horrible Manchester bombing (hands together in prayer symbol) but no let’s not stop letting them in the country let’s kill every… Muslim ... we see.. bet they would still send us down.’ It reads like more of an emotional rant, than a credible threat. And while the sentiment is ugly, there was no evidence that Jakovlevs intended actually to carry out any physical acts of harm against Muslims. Even the CPS admitted no harmful action was traced to the post.

This is a case of being punished for vitriolic speech. And within the realm of free speech, we must make space for vitriol and hyperbole. Otherwise, where do we draw the line? Political debate often descends into hyperbole, especially on social media. There must be countless tweets wishing various politicians would die or go to hell. We know these are not credible death threats, but will people now be arrested for posting them?

Worryingly, we are now in a situation in Britain where it is unclear what you can and cannot say online without having the police call round. This will have a chilling effect on speech in the online world and public sphere as people begin to self-censor – and that should concern anyone who wants to live in a free society.

Commenting on the case, Sue Hemming, head of the CPS’s special crime and counterterrorism division, said: ‘People should not assume they can hide on social media when stirring up hatred and violence.’ Evidently, they cannot. But to what end? What is the benefit to society of banning the expression of bad and hateful ideas? Surely we want these ideas out in the open so that we can combat them with better ideas and better arguments. Censorship won’t change anyone’s mind.

Defending free speech means trusting people to hear all ideas and views – even the nasty ones – and then allowing them to make up their own minds. When the CPS censors speech, it displays its low opinion of people, clearly expecting us to react to a vitriolic Facebook post in the manner of murderous robots.

The fight to defeat hateful views can only be won if we are first trusted to hear those ideas, before exercising our own free-speech rights to challenge them. This constant chipping away of our rights to free speech will only be of detriment to society.

Naomi Firsht is staff writer at spiked and co-author of The Parisians’ Guide to Cafés, Bars and Restaurants. Follow her on Twitter: @Naomi_theFirsht

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