Oversensitive MPs need to ‘get in the sea’

‘Get in the sea’ is a jokey expression, often bandied about on social media. A a polite way of telling someone to fuck off, the common Twitter insult is as tongue in cheek as it is widely used.

So, when Verity Phillips, a student at the University of Bristol, tweeted at her local MP, telling her to ‘get in the sea’, she wasn’t literally demanding that her elected representative go for a dip.

However, Labour MP for Bristol West Thangam Debbonaire had clearly left her sarcasm detector at home. Debbonaire claimed that Phillips’ tweet had threatened her life, tweeting: ‘This person has just told me to drown – I believe that is a threat to kill.’

She then went on to complain to the university, again voicing her complaint on Twitter: ‘I expect Bristol Uni[sic] to deal with this.’ Phillips was slapped with a disciplinary by the university and forced to write a letter of apology to Debbonaire.

Debbonaire, a woman who voluntarily holds public office at the will of the people, has no right to attempt to police her constituents’ tweets. Phillips’ comment was so innocuous, and the tone so obviously sarcastic, that it didn’t merit any serious attention in the first place. I’m tempted to tweet Debbonaire to not to cry over spilt milk, but it would probably lead her to believe that there had been a literal dairy disaster.

Even if Phillips had intended to be aggressive, free speech must not be compromised for the sake of defending politicians’ sensibilities. Unpleasantness, whether online or offline, should be argued with, not censored.

This incident may seem like a hilarious misunderstanding, but something far more sinister underpins Debbonaire’s hyperbolic reaction. This spat indicates an alarming trend towards censorship online, following the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox. Using this tragedy, MPs are attempting to shield themselves from any form of public criticism.

Of course, our elected representatives should be safe from physical harm. But that doesn’t mean that politicians have a licence to cry to the authorities whenever someone tweets something mean at them. Whether it’s silly insults or serious political debate, we must argue for free speech for all, with no ifs and no buts.

George Harrison is a writer and student.

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