‘Of course people must be free to be insulting.’ That is what the feminist Caroline Criado-Perez said in a radio debate with me last year. I was expressing my concern that her campaign against Twitter trolls, who had been sending her and other media women horrible sexist tweets, would end up making it a crime to be insulting, crude, rude, offensive or hateful. And in my view, it shouldn’t be a crime to be any of those things, because while it might not be big or clever to hate someone, and to say outrageously offensive things about them, it is nonetheless just a thought, an emotion, a form of expression, and the state has no business policing our thoughts or speech. Ms Criado-Perez countered that she wasn’t remotely interested in clamping down on people’s offensive speech or on the right to be insulting – her only concern was with those who issued death or rape threats. ‘The discussion isn’t about people being insulting. Of course people must be free to be insulting. We have to draw a distinction between insults and actually illegal acts: threats’, she said.
Okay – so on what basis were John Sorley and Isabella Nimmo, the two sad, isolated individuals who had charges brought against them for tweeting Ms Criado-Perez and others, yesterday imprisoned for a shocking eight weeks and 12 weeks respectively? Was it simply because they had issued death threats? No, it was also because they had been insulting, because they had dared to write offensively about women in the public eye. As the media reports on their prison sentences make clear, their crimes included sending tweets such as ‘Shut up bitch’ and ‘Dumb blond bitch’. Other tweets that were used as evidence in court and which contributed to their receiving months-long custodial sentences include, ‘Go die’ and ‘Fuck off and die’. Those are clearly not death threats; they are expressions of a very strong opinion. ‘Fuck off and die’ is a phrase that people use every day. Yet now, thanks to the decision of this court, uttering it is a potentially imprisonable offence.
The judge at Westminster Magistrates’ Court, where the case was heard, clearly accepted that Sorley and Nimmo should be punished for being insulting. In his judgement, in which he found them guilty under the Communications Act 2003 of sending tweets that were ‘menacing in character’, he mentioned the 10 tweets that Mr Nimmo was going to be imprisoned for sending. These included a tweet saying ‘Dumb blond bitch’. So a man is in prison this morning in part for calling someone a ‘bitch’. Free to be insulting? Not anymore, we aren’t. The judge also listed the 16 tweets that Ms Sorley was being sent to jail for sending, and they include the comments ‘Go die’, ‘Fuck off and die’ and ‘You should have jumped in front of horses’. Everyday speech, everyday insults, everyday expressions of angst or just ironical anger against someone who is pissing you off, have overnight been turned into something you can be imprisoned for uttering.
But what about the death threats that Ms Sorley and Mr Nimmo also sent? Well, anyone with two brain cells to rub together can see that these were not even remotely serious threats. Alongside saying ‘Dumb blond bitch’ (lock him up!), Mr Nimmo also tweeted, ‘Rape her nice ass’, ‘Could I help with that LOL’, ‘The things I cud do to you’ and ‘I will find you’. That is the extent of his so-called threats of violence. The first thing to point out is that the most offensive tweet here – ‘Rape her nice ass’ – is not a threat; it is not saying ‘I will rape her nice ass’, but simply that someone should. It is a completely vague and, yes, warped expression of disdain for an individual, not a threat of rape. The other tweets, one of which is even offset with the term ‘LOL’, make no mention of acts of violence, far less where or how such acts might occur. They are not real threats; they are merely an extension of Mr Nimmo’s feeling of anger and dislike for Ms Criado-Perez.
Ms Sorley’s threatening tweets including things like, ‘Kill yourself before I do’ and ‘I’ve just got out of prison and would happily do more time to see you berried [sic]’. Again, these are very clearly infantile gestures, empty bravado, extensions of Ms Sorley’s already expressed disgust for Ms Criado-Perez, not serious threats. If you read the judge’s summing up when he imprisoned Sorley and Nimmo, and the subsequent media coverage of their jailing, it is very clear that fundamentally they have been jailed not for making specific or meaningful threats of violence that had a possibility of being carried out, but for banging out insulting and offensive and outrageous tweets. They have been jailed, not because they are considered a serious physical threat to people, but because they wrote horrible, rotten, shocking things online – in short, because they were insulting.