Twitter: #FreeSpeech or #EthicalCleansing?
Where is the outcry over the rising number of blatant cases of non-secret state interference online and in social media?
There has been a storm of somewhat overblown hysteria about the US and UK authorities secretly spying on citizens’ private emails and postings on social-media websites. Yet there is far less debate about a much more open attempt to police free speech online in the UK, through the public pursuit, arrest and prosecution of those deemed to have said something offensive or outrageous on Twitter or Facebook.
The latest bizarre episode in this campaign of ‘ethical cleansing’ on the web occurred at the end of last week, when a 21-year-old London student was sentenced to 250 hours of community service as punishment for a 16-word tweet, having been found guilty of sending a malicious electronic message at an earlier hearing.
Like several other recent Twitter incidents, the case began after the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby in Woolwich on 22 May. As a natural home of rumour, gossip and ill-informed opinion, Twitter was soon ablaze with comments about the killing, including rumours that Drummer Rigby had been decapitated in the street. Deyka Ayan Hassan, a 21-year old English and politics undergraduate from north London, quickly joined in the Twitter-fest with what she intended to be a fashion joke about Lee Rigby’s outfit: ‘To be honest, if you wear a Help for Heroes t-shirt you deserve to be beheaded.’ Hassan’s lawyer told the court that this was the sort of remark she would typically make ‘about clothes and shoes she didn’t like’ (which sounds believable enough to anybody familiar with the level of online ‘banter’). Hassan also insists that at the time of tweeting, she did not know that the dead man was a soldier or that Islamic extremists were accused of his murder.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Hassan’s joke about the t-shirt did not meet with universal approval online. She was soon inundated with hundreds of hate tweets, threatening her with everything from rape to being burned alive in her home. The naive and shocked student then went to a local police station to report these threats and insults. Rather than listen to her complaints, the police arrested Hassan for sending the original tweet. She was then fast-tracked into court, as if this was an urgent case, and pleaded guilty.
At last week’s sentencing hearing, Hassan admitted that her tweet had been ‘distasteful and disgusting’ and caused ‘gross offence’. She said she was disgusted with herself, having been brought up to be tolerant and respect society. The magistrates accepted that ‘you didn’t intend to cause harm and you felt it was a joke’. Nevertheless, they slapped her with a stiff sentence of 250 hours of community service, and assured the student that they would have sent her straight to prison if there had been any evidence that she knew Lee Rigby was a soldier. They did not explain why somebody found guilty of making a bad taste joke about a murder victim’s t-shirt should be judged according to the dead man’s profession.
This ridiculous case should highlight several dangers and warnings for all those using social media today.
Passing sentence, the magistrates told Hassan that her short tweet ‘had a huge impact and clearly caused offence and distress. Your act was naive and foolish and without regard to the general public at a time of heightened sensitivity.’ Leaving aside the hyperbolic suggestion that a student joke sent to her few hundred ‘followers’ on Twitter could have a ‘huge impact’, these words are no doubt true. She was naive and foolish and clearly offended the heightened sensibilities of others in the immediate aftermath of Drummer Rigby’s murder.
But, we are still entitled to ask, so what? How does using insensitive words that upset or outrage some people constitute a crime, let alone one requiring fast-track prosecution and punishment? When did finding a joke from a student (or a stand-up) unfunny and offensive become evidence that a serious offence has been committed? Anybody should of course be at liberty to tell Hassan exactly what they thought of her tweet. That is very different from the police and courts threatening to deprive her of her liberty simply for distasteful tweeting.
Cases such as this demonstrate how the creeping culture of You Can’t Say That is now spreading across the supposedly free fringes of the internet. As other incidents listed below show, it can now be deemed a crime to post accusations, insults or just ‘naughty’ words that tweeters, the police and the courts consider ‘inappropriate’, ‘offensive’ or ‘insensitive’. And we thought that Thought Crime belonged in the realm of fiction.
The Hassan case should also be a warning to those many users of social-media sites who now see it as their role to police what others say online – and to inform the real police about tweets and posts they find offensive. The police are happy to act on such information, since they far prefer pursuing thought criminals across their tweets to chasing real ones on the streets. But as Deyka Ayan Hassan’s experience shows, the law is no respecter of anybody’s freedom of expression. She thought she was reporting a crime, and ended up with a criminal record. Those who try to live by the ‘hate speech’ laws can perish by them, too.
From print to the web, free expression in the UK is now under pressure from two directions. There is the top-down Leveson effect, the elitist attempt to police, tame and ethically cleanse the media – and especially the popular press – which risks creating a more sanitised public debate. And then there is what we might call the ‘Leveson within’. This is the internalisation of the outlook of narrow-minded conformism. It means many people now seem less concerned to debate issues than to shut up opinions they deem offensive or unpalatable, using their own freedom of expression online to try to curtail that of others – and to call on the authorities to do so, too.
The culture of You Can’t Say That is making seemingly unstoppable progress across society, even while apparently oblivious civil libertarians rage against the spectre of state surveillance. Last September, no less a figure than the UK Director of Public Prosecutions himself announced that ‘offensive comments made on Twitter are unlikely to lead to criminal charges unless they include threats or turn into campaigns of harassment’. In what was billed as ‘an important statement about the boundaries of free speech’, Keir Starmer reportedly ‘suggested that prosecutions would not be brought over one-off jokes made online, even if in they were in poor taste’. Tell that to such examplars of one-off poor taste jokes as Deyka Ayan Hassan and some of the other characters listed below.
There is a pressing need to defend freedom of expression across the media and the web, with no buts. True tolerance does not mean endorsing anything that is said. But it does mean accepting that there are more important principles at stake than public sensitivities. Nobody has to be a model of piety or a cracker of family-friendly gags in order to enjoy freedom of expression.
There is now so much crud and crap to take exception to online. We should all be free to read it, rubbish it, ridicule it – or, often the most sensible response, to ignore it entirely on the basis that life, both real and virtual, is too short to bother. There are far more important things to worry and argue about.
To try to turn bad-taste humour into another excuse for ethically cleansing the web, however, is a seriously bad joke.
YOU CAN’T SAY THAT
Below are just a few of the recent cases where people have been investigated, arrested or convicted for being offensive on Twitter or Facebook. (Adapted from my contribution to the After Leveson exhibition at the ellwoodatfield gallery in Westminster, London.)
‘Everyone on Made in Chelsea looks like a fucking fag’ – Paris Brown, 17. Brown was forced to resign as Youth Police and Crime Commissioner, grilled by Special Branch officers and had her phone confiscated over offensive tweets she had posted aged 14 to 16.
‘Crap. Robin Hood airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together, otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!’ – Paul Chambers, 27. For this bad joke on Twitter, Chambers was arrested and convicted of sending a message deemed ‘grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character’, fined £1,000 and lost his job.
‘Who in their right mind would abduct a ginger kid?’ – Matthew Woods, 19. Woods was sentenced to 12 weeks in prison for posting ‘grossly offensive’ messages on Facebook about missing five-year-old April Jones.
‘LOL. Fuck Muamba he’s dead… Go suck Muamba’s dead black dick then you aids-ridden twat!’ – Liam Stacey, 21. After drunkenly mocking footballer Fabrice Muamba on Twitter and tweeting racist abuse to those who complained, Swansea student Stacey was shopped to police by tweeters, arrested in a dawn raid, convicted of a ‘racially aggravated public order offence’, jailed for 56 days, and excluded from university.
‘With the number of darkies in your fucking team, you should be called the Coon Army’ – Peter Copeland, 29. Sunderland supporter Copeland sent tweets to ‘wind up’ Newcastle United fans, known as the Toon Army. Reported to police by a local journalist, he was convicted under the Malicious Communications Act and given a four-month suspended jail sentence.
‘Liverpool has not let me down tonight. Bravo you child-killing, benefits-addicted socialist monsters of the welfare state. I SALUTE YOU’ – ‘Notorious’ blogger and tweeter Old Holborn was reported and investigated by the police for posting ‘inappropriate and offensive’ comments about the Hillsborough disaster and the murder of toddler James Bulger.
Mick Hume is spiked’s editor-at-large. His book There is No Such Thing as a Free Press… And We Need One More Than Ever is published by Societas and is now available in print and Kindle editions. (Order this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit his website here.
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