Paris Brown, Free Speech and Social Media

The sorry tale of Paris Brown, who stood down as Kent’s Youth Police and Crime Commissioner even before she took office, has already been talked and written about a great deal. I don’t want to add much, just to comment a little on the implications of it for what we loosely describe as ‘free speech’. It’s a cautionary tale in many ways – but I don’t think that all the ramifications have yet been considered.

I’m not going to rehash the whole story – and nor do I wish to comment upon Paris Brown herself. What I do want to talk about is what happened to her – because I think it has significant implications for both free speech and indeed for democracy. Ian Clark, who writes the excellent infoism blog, has described at some length the dismal role that the Mail on Sunday played in the whole affair: effectively ambushing Paris Brown and then demolishing her in print, on the basis of her tweeting prior to being considered for the position of Youth Police and Crime Commissioner. That, in turn, has brought about a police investigation into those tweets….

So what’s the impact of all this on free speech?

Well, first of all, particularly given the huge publicity that the whole affair has been given, it might make ambitious teens think twice about what they tweet. If they have an inkling that they might want to do something even vaguely political in the future, they might control what they say on the social media…

Secondly, if anyone – with political ambitions or not – sees that the police are going to instigate investigations, or even prosecute (though I certainly hope it doesn’t come to that) people in these kinds of circumstances, they will also be likely to think twice about what they tweet.

Thirdly, as Rachel Rogers points out in her excellent blog, it reminds employers (and specifically employers like the PCC), that they have a duty of care which should extend to checking potential employees’ social media presences. If Kent’s PCC had been careful, as Rachel Rogers points out, they could have encouraged Paris Brown to prune her tweets – but they might also have chosen a different candidate. Kent’s PCC has been extremely embarrassed about the whole affair – and other employers of all sorts will have been watching the events with deep concern. There but for the grace of God….

This combination of effects is pretty devastating. Anything people tweet, anything they put on Facebook, is facing potential scrutiny by the press, by the police, and by potential employers. For some that will result in a heavy chilling factor – they won’t say what they might, and might even drop out of the social media entirely. Others may have a different but potentially equally damaging reaction – they’ll choose never to put themselves forward for any job or situation that puts them in the public eye, expecting (or even knowing) that they’d be hounded and demonised by the press, humiliated and even prosecuted.

Freedom of the social media…

One of the strengths of the social media – and of twitter in particular – lies in the freedom of debate, and the spontaneity of interaction. Do we really want to lose that? I don’t mean that tweets should be beyond the law – quite the opposite – but that the law needs to be much more careful, much more balanced, and much less aggressive. The DPP has issued guidance on prosecutions for public order and related offences – I think we need a change in the law, relaxing it in many ways, allowing much more freedom.

This feels particularly poignant for young people – and Paris Brown, for all her precocity, is still a child. Children need freedom – and need to be allowed to make mistakes and to learn from them. That doesn’t seem to be considered here at all.

The press and free speech….

What’s equally worrying to me is the role of the press. Much has been said – particularly by the press itself – about the threat to free speech posed by the kind of regulation currently being put forward as a result of the Leveson Inquiry. Some of this is justified – and we do need to proceed with care – but we should also be aware that the press itself produces a chilling effect on free speech. Actions like those of the Mail on Sunday over Paris Brown have precisely that effect – and make it very hard to see them as great champions of the crucial democratic force of free speech.

What can be done about it is another matter – but every time the press acts like this, it makes me feel more sympathetic to the idea of press regulation. Whether any kind of regulation would stop the likes of the Mail behaving in this way is another matter entirely. It may just be that we have to accept it. Speech is chilled, democracy is stunted, but that’s the price we have to pay for a ‘free’ press….

18 thoughts on “Paris Brown, Free Speech and Social Media

  1. The Daily Mail website is a revolting place filled with the most ludicrous bias, contradiction and utterly shameless hypocrisy.

    They also don’t allow comments presenting an alternative view.

  2. Rather than the incredibly wrong-headed “right to be forgotten” we need a new norm. We need the right to disown our past selves. If someone brings up something I posted on the internet ten years ago I can’t deny it and shouldn’t be able to, but I’m free to say it was a mistake or a view that made sense then and not one that I hold now.

    Of couse I can say that, but it needs to be accepted as a norm. People are struggling to cope with the long memory and wide exposure of the internet using last-century thinking about print media. No. think universally about what human beings are and how they change, and the right to change one’s mind becomes obvious.

    • There’s a related concept known as ‘mutually assured humiliation’: that eventually we’ll ALL have stuff about us online that’s embarrassing, stupid and potentially humiliating. Once that happens, so the theory goes, we’ll stop being so hung up about the old, embarrassing stuff. There are one or two (!) flaws in the theory – not least how we get there from where we are now. I would love the kind of norm you suggest to become accepted – and eventually it might – but I fear there will be a lot of pain along the way…

  3. Children need freedom but we don’t need children working as police commissioners or their surrogates. News organisations have a proper role in scrutinising public appointments. If that stops the appointment of people who have recently said silly things, we shall all be better off. And if this incident encourages candidates for public office to think before they write, Paris Brown will have achieved something worthwhile.

    • Thanks – and I agree in most ways. I’d like the idea of children (or young people) being engaged in the system in some way, and but as you say, not as police commissioners or their surrogates. You’re right, of course, that candidates for public office should think before they write – but that’s not quite what happened here. What Paris Brown tweeted, she tweeted as a child who wasn’t considering running for public office in any way. She was just a child.

      Does that mean that people should at all times be ‘careful’ about what they do and write online? And if so, is that a good thing? Personally I’m still not convinced that it would be a good thing – but I know that this is a personal take, and some degree of ‘chill’ might be a good thing.

      • Briefly, I do think people should be careful about what they say and do in public. If they grow up and want to put their childish mistakes behind them, they should at least try to delete messages of which they are ashamed. I realise the practical limitations of this approach but an intention to do so would demonstrate maturity. So would coming clean to a potential employer.

      • Agreed – and amongst other things I think Paris Brown should have deleted her twitter account prior to her application for the job. This, of course, highlights the reasons for the (deeply flawed) concept of the right to be forgotten – it should make it possible, and potentially easier, to clean up your youthful misdemeanours…

      • Sorry, wrote my comment whilst subsequent comments were made. I do agree with both of you on the latter points. She should have come clean to her employer about other accounts (although also she should have been asked) and deletion of the messages would have been a very wise move.

    • “If that stops the appointment of people who have recently said silly things, we shall all be better off.”

      Who will arbitrate whether a statement is ‘silly’ or not? The press? I’d be a bit concerned about the road that would lead us down, especially when it comes to political appointments. “Silly” is a rather subjective way to determine someone’s suitability for a public appointment isn’t it?

      Like Paul, I’d be worried if people have to be careful at all times about what they do and write online. Certainly, in the case of Paris Brown, I would argue that how she performed in the role would have been more important than stupid things she said before she was appointed. If these tweets had been posted whilst she was performing the role she should absolutely have been removed from the role with immediate effect. As she did not, I find it difficult to condone such punishment for someone who has been ‘silly’ and, let’s face it in the digital age, more than a little naive.

  4. Everything you say on twitter is completely public and it should be treated as such. I agree that children have a right to make mistakes and change their views as they grew older, but equally they are not stupid. I doubt 14 year-old Paris Brown would have said the things she did to a teacher or in a public context away from the internet. As social media plays an increasingly important role in how we communicate, we need to make sure that children using it fully understand the etiquette of communicating digitally in a public sphere.

    I agree with your point that Paris Brown will probably show young people how not to act on twitter and make them aware of the potential pitfalls, which is a positive thing. She was perhaps a victim of the fact that social media is a relatively new phenomenon that society is still getting to grips with.

    • Yes, I think that’s right – there’s a kind of ‘time gap’ here, with people not really understanding either the fully public nature of twitter or the implications of the permanence of their tweets. The problem is that there’s a human result of that time gap, and potentially human victims. That might be inevitable – but personally I’d like to give some people some kind of protection or lee-way. That’s particularly true for children. They need space and freedom to experiment, and not to be punished forever for what they do as kids.

  5. Two points from me.Firstly Police and Crime Commissioners were a silly idea and now that many of the posts are filled by very some silly people we can see just how. Kent’s Commissioner is probably no sillier than many of the others, like the buffoon in Lincolnshire who illegally tried to suspend the interim Chief Constable or the clown at West Mercia who is handing out jobs to mates who are even less qualified than he is.

    Secondly I have a degree of sympathy for Paris Brown. A teenager saying silly and immature things? What a surprise! I said many stupid things in my teenage years but as those years ended in March 1982 I never had to worry about them being resurrected and used against me. If people’s electronic pasts are going to be dredged in this way, particularly in the case of young people that is worrying. Being silly or stupid at some stage is an essential part of growing up.

  6. …..”but we should also be aware that the press itself produces a chilling effect on free speech. Actions like those of the Mail on Sunday over Paris Brown have precisely that effect – and make it very hard to see them as great champions of the crucial democratic force of free speech”.

    The above point from this article is well made. The arguments made by Daily Mail and other newspapers are undermined by their behaviour towards people like Paris Brown. Regrettably the arguments over free speech are being dominated by those with vested interest. For example on the other side of the debate is Edward Garnier, the latest politician who is using his privileged position to protect his lucrative other role as a barrister by interfering with the libel bill.

    Those who campaign for free speech for unselfish reasons should distance themselves from the reptiles in the press. They also need to be more combative when it comes to dealing with libel dinosaurs like Garnier. Libel Reform have done well but now need to take a more active role in the debate over free speech and in particular to highlight the 80% odd libel cases which are eventually dimissed by the court for being ill conceived or complete trivia.

    A point raised previously (on this site I think) is that Libel Reform has exaggerated the fact that current law is responsible for the injustices in libel cases. I think there is some merit in that point and it is time for Libel Reform to finally address the argument that the problem also lies with the legal process. Hopeless libel claimants are being give far too much indulgence early on. These cases need to be dismissed in one hearing – not 15 hearings as I came across in one instance.

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