Beware the broadband bobbies

The police may have dropped an investigation into Paris Brown, but the clampdown on free speech online continues.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Free Speech

So, in the case of a potty-mouthed Kent teenager and one-time youth police crime commissioner, it looks like good old common sense has prevailed. The police, alongside the Crown Prosecution Service, have decided that 17-year-old Paris Brown’s tweets about ‘pikeys’, cannabis cakes, and an absent sex life are not deserving of prosecution.

That the twittered blatherings of a teenager – many of which she made between the ages of 14 and 16 – were deemed worthy of prosecution in the first place has rightfully attracted a fair bit of criticism. After all, what Brown wrote was little different in spirit to the kind of stuff teenagers have spouted for generations. Adolescent guff is adolescent guff regardless of the medium. That she was to be appointed as the UK’s first youth police crime commissioner – a nonsense position in itself – should never have rendered her teen twitterings up for retropsective legal intervention.

Brown’s lawyers have been particularly forthright, both before and after the police decided to stop the investigation. ‘Being subject to a police investigation is highly distressing for any person’, they stated, ‘but especially so for a teenager, particularly one who has been recently subject to such adverse media coverage… we believe that the police must weigh carefully the extent to which an investigation relating solely to social media activity is merited.’

And here we come to a problem. Brown’s case is far from exceptional. In fact, over the past few years, as more and more people have started using Facebook and Twitter, the police have regularly decided that ‘investigations related solely to social media activity’ are indeed merited. So while it’s good news that Brown can get back to drunk tweeting, it’s very bad news that many others have not been so fortunate.

There was, for example, the case of Liam Stacey, a Swansea University student and first-class pillock, who decided to indulge in a bit of racist tweeting following the on-pitch cardiac arrest of footballer Fabrice Muamba in March 2012. Convicted of a racially aggravated public-order offence, Stacey was incarcerated for 56 days.

Then there was Rileyy_69, the Twitter moniker of a 17-year-old prat from Weymouth in Cornwall. During last summer’s Olympics, Rileyy_69 took to twitter to have a pop at the British diver, Tom Daley, for his failure to win a medal in the men’s synchronised 100m event. Rileyy_69 even thought it appropriate to bring up Daley’s father, Rob, who had lost a high-profile battle with cancer in 2011: ‘You let your dad down I hope you know that’; and ‘hope your crying now you should be why can’t you even produce for your country your just a diver anyway a over hyped prick’. Subsequent apologies from Riley_69, plus a few daft threats, were not enough, however, as the police arrested him the following morning.

In October, 19-year-old Matthew Woods was the next to be arrested for the crime of writing silly things. He had decided to make sick jokes on Facebook about missing schoolgirl April Jones. ‘Who in their right mind would abduct a ginger kid?’, he wrote before concluding triumphantly: ‘Could have just started the greatest Facebook argument EVER. April fools, who wants Maddie? I love April Jones.’ His reward for starting the ‘greatest Facebook argument EVER’ was a three-month jail sentence.

And then, last week, there was the case of a prominent tweeter and blogger known as Old_Holborn. He had been busy commemorating the recent twenty-fourth anniversary of the Hillsborough football disaster, in which 96 Liverpool fans lost their lives, with a series of anti-Liverpool tweets – ‘Liverpool has not let me down tonight. Bravo you child-killing benefits-addicted socialist monsters of the welfare state. I SALUTE YOU’. Police are currently investigating.

Yet, as opposed to the rise and fall of Paris Brown, these cases did not really prompt much in the way of outcry. In fact, many who might think of themselves as liberal seemed quite happy that free speech was being trampled underfoot by broadband bobbies. One Observer columnist admitted she could well understand ‘why newspaper columnists have spent the last week cheering [Liam Stacey’s] sentence and the lost appeal’. In the Independent, another commentator was brimful with authoritarian longing: ‘In the age of social media and online interaction, what [Matthew Woods] said was unacceptable and deserves to be punished.’

So while it’s good news that the police have dropped a ridiculous investigation into a teenager accused, effectively, of being a teenager, there is a wider, twofold problem here. First, that people’s online utterances have become routine objects of police investigation. It seems you no longer have to do anything wrong to have your collar felt; you merely have to write something deemed wrong on social media. And second, too few are willing to defend the principle of free speech when it gets difficult – that is, when what is being written is racist, wilfully offensive or just plain moronic. Yet, take away the free speech of some, and the principle of free speech as a whole is damaged.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

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Topics Free Speech


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