Free speech… what’s the point? UPDATED

The whole idea of ‘free speech’ has had a few challenges this last week or so. The Paris Brown saga (about which I’ve written here), the decision by the BBC not to play ‘Ding, Dong, the Witch is Dead’ though it reached number two in the charts, the various attempts to block protests at Margaret Thatcher’s funeral, the late amendments to the Defamation Act to remove the proposed controls over companies’ abilities to sue for libel, and the arrival in court of the Sally Bercow/Lord McAlpine twitter defamation trial about which I wrote this in December). Watching how all of this has been reported – and watching the exchanges in the media, and on twitter in particular – has reminded me how unclear it seems to be to many people what the point of free speech is. What is free speech? When it should be protected?

I don’t think there’s a very clear answer – not to me, at least – but there are some things that are clear to me. I’m not a ‘free speech absolutist’ in any way. I don’t believe that freedom of speech is such a pure and perfect thing that it should be prioritised over all other things – over privacy, for example – but I do think that in the UK, at least, we seem to miss what the point really is rather more than we should. For me, free speech is about holding the powerful to account. It should be to help the little people, the ordinary people, to have their voices heard. It should be to stop bullying, not to allow it.

Holding the powerful to account

That’s where things seem to be so very much out of kilter over the last few weeks: it has been the powerful’s voices that have echoed everywhere, and the ‘ordinary’ people who have found it hard to be heard. The BBC caved in to the powerful voices of the Daily Mail and the Telegraph in blocking the playing of ‘Ding Dong’ – when they had a perfectly reasonable opportunity to just play the song without comment or emphasis. It was a bit of a silly campaign, but why silence it? It was a bit distasteful, a bit disrespectful – but if we think taste and respect is sufficient reason to block free speech we’re going down a very slippery slope, the kind that ends in the kind of Lèse majesté laws that they have in Thailand and can give a 15 year jail sentence for insulting the King.

It’s a similar story in a way for the changes to the Defamation Bill. I’m not wholly convinced with the libel reform campaign in some ways – I don’t think our defamation laws are quite as broken as some suggest – but the limitations on companies’ abilities to sue, particularly where they perform a public function, seem to do exactly the right thing for freedom of speech: support the weak against the powerful.

Freedom to protest

That kind of relationship is echoed in relation to protest. The ability to protest – the freedom to protest – is a crucial part of freedom of speech, because it’s about holding the powerful to account. Freedom of speech doesn’t just mean freedom to speak politely and respectfully. It doesn’t just mean freedom to say things that the authorities like – indeed, quite the opposite. It’s most important when people want to say things that the authorities don’t like – and say them in a way that the authorities don’t like. Protest is part of that – indeed, it’s a key part of that. It may seem a bit pointless at times, it may seem disrespectful and disruptive – but it’s important. During the aftermath of the death of Thatcher, many people felt that their views were being marginalised – that they were being presented with a view of Thatcher that didn’t accord with their experience. How could they get their views across? From their perspective, the BBC and other broadcasters weren’t showing it – they were giving a series of ‘respectful’ and ‘supportive’ views. When they organised a silly song, even that was silenced. Their ‘parties’ were demonised – or barely covered on the media.

Some of it was very much distasteful – the burning of effigies etc – but even that is part of freedom of expression. For me, it shouldn’t be silenced – it should be listened to, it should be argued against but when people feel as passionately as they do about Thatcher, it’s hardly surprising. Sometimes the ‘polite’ and ‘respectful’ ways aren’t available – or are easily ignored. Sometimes they just don’t work.

The freedom to be offensive?

That doesn’t mean, however, that it’s always ‘OK’ to be offensive. Another example of this happened quite dramatically yesterday with the somewhat gruesome saga of twitter user Old Holborn. He posted some really remarkably offensive tweets – supposedly jokes, I think – targeted at Scousers, tweets about Hillsborough, about Jamie Bulger and other things. Really horrible stuff – and the result was that people started doing some research, to find out who ‘Old Holborn’ really was. In a relatively short time his name, address, employers name, phone number and more were released onto the internet – and apparently he started to receive threats, even death threats. The full details have yet to come out, and whether or not the police are involved – and how – does not appear completely clear at this stage.

Many people are finding this hard to react to – and I’m one of them. What he tweeted was totally repellent – and yet, to someone like me, so is the kind of targeting of him, the ‘torches and pitchforks’ approach to him. And, most importantly, if we believe in freedom of speech, we have to believe it for the people we don’t like, as well as the people we do like. If I want the right to protest about Margaret Thatcher, I need to be willing to accord the right to be offensive even to the likes of Old Holborn. Indeed, that’s the key test of my commitment to freedom of speech.

That doesn’t mean – in either case – that freedom of speech means a freedom from the consequences of that speech. Freedom of speech, like all freedoms, comes with responsibilities and consequences – if I say something offensive, then the chances are that people will be offended. It’s not that they have a right not to be offended, but that their being offended means something. It will make them react. That reaction may be real, it may be nasty, but I have to accept that this reaction may happen.

The point of freedom of speech

So that brings me back to the main question. What’s the point of freedom of speech? It’s not about ‘nice’ things. It’s not about ‘respect’. It’s about being able to fight against conformity, about not being bullied. About giving people power. If we start using ‘taste’ and ‘decency’ as our guides, we’re headed in a direction that is very disturbing indeed. We seem to have moved in that direction the last week or two. I hope we have the sense not to go any further.

58 thoughts on “Free speech… what’s the point? UPDATED

  1. “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”
    and
    “I may not agree with what you say but I will fight for your right to say it”
    Freedom of speech and thought were both fought for and paid for in blood and pain but apathy and propaganda are leeching them away.

  2. Right now, I could post the most racist, vile, slanderous comment I could dream up AND NOBODY COULD STOP ME POSTING IT. However, I have to be ready for the consequences of my actions and probably should use my common sense. Seems the fat old bellend didn’t bother. No sympathy. I’m free to walk where I want but if I walk in the road I’ll get knocked down. Same with this faux libertarian Old Holborn. Think before you speak, when did everyone get so bloody stupid.

  3. There is no point in having freedom of speech if it can only be used to say popular things in a tasteful way. The point is to allow unpopular people to say unpopular things distastefully. And subject to some pretty basic limits this should mean both not being censored at the time or punished (officially or unofficially) afterwards.

    But if you say unpopular things distastefully you can expect other people to do the same to you. That is free speech. It’s better than throwing rocks. And it is very important, and constantly under threat from people whose arguments, or lives, won’t stand up to scrutiny.

  4. “It’s not that they have a right not to be offended, but that their being offended means something. It will make them react. That reaction may be real, it may be nasty, but I have to accept that this reaction may happen.”

    True; however, except in extreme cases where public order is threatened, nobody should have to put up with a completely unreasonable and unlawful reaction (such as death threats, mobs turning up at your house, etc). Whatever being offended might mean, it does not mean that the offended person has special powers or privileges to inflict harm on the “offender”.

    • I was a bit unclear. Nobody should have to put up with it regardless. But the speaker should not be held responsible for the unlawful and unreasonable reactions of other people. In situations that threaten public order, the speaker is not responsible for reactions if his conduct was reasonable. Making sick jokes should be considered reasonable conduct.

      • I think I’m with you on that – it’s the borderlines, the grey areas that make it difficult, and things like who defines ‘public order’. It’s easy to go down slippery slopes…

  5. In order to understand freedom of speech, you must have a clear understanding of what a human being is.

    There is a very clear idea of what freedom of speech is and how it arrives to be true. Once you understand the principles, its easy to clear up every situation listed at the beginning of this blog post.

    Beginning with the fundamental principles, you own your own body. No one owns it but you. When you trade for something with money or for work, what you trade for belongs to you. Lets say that you buy a pencil and a piece of paper. Those two things belong to you, and what you do with them is completely your affair. No one has the right to tell you you cannot draw a certain picture on them, or write words that come out of your mind on them.

    Expanding this, the same facts hold true if you buy 1000 sheets of paper, some ink and a printing press. They all belong to you, and you have the absolute right to print whatever you like on them, and you own, absolutely, those pieces of paper with whatever you printed on them.

    Now lets say that someone comes along to you with money, and wants to buy those sheets of paper from you. You and that person have an absolute right to trade money or whatever is acceptable to you both. Then the paper belongs to her, and the thing you traded for belongs to you.

    At no time is anyone else involved in any of what I just described. The transfer of property is completely ethical and without problems. What is or is not on the paper is irrelevant.

    Clearly, extending this to the internet, a man renting server space has entered into a contract with his ISP. This contract is private, and has nothing to do with anyone other than the two parties, governed by the agreement they have signed. Nothing changes in the analogy of the paper and printing press or pencil. The server space is private property, and it has nothing to do with anyone who does not own it.

    Now, lets look at the idea of “taking offence”.

    Offence is something that happens in the mind of the offended person. It is not the result of a physical act, or an assault. It is similar to the idea of reputation; a person cannot own his reputation, since it is thought in the minds of other people

    “Smith has a property right to the ideas or opinions in his own head; he also has a property right to print anything he wants and disseminate it. He has a property right to say that Jones is a “thief” even if he knows it to be false, and to print and sell that statement. The counter-view, and the current basis for holding libel and slander (especially of false statements) to be illegal is that every man has a “property right” in his own reputation, that Smith’s falsehoods damage that reputation, and that therefore Smith’s libels are invasions of Jones’s property right in his reputation and should be illegal. Yet, again, on closer analysis this is a fallacious view. For everyone, as we have stated, owns his own body; he has a property right in his own head and person. But since every man owns his own mind, he cannot therefore own the minds of anyone else. And yet Jones’s “reputation” is neither a physical entity nor is it something contained within or on his own person. Jones’s “reputation” is purely a function of the subjective attitudes and beliefs about him contained in the minds of other people. But since these are beliefs in the minds of others, Jones can in no way legitimately own or control them. Jones can have no property right in the beliefs and minds of other people.

    Let us consider, in fact, the implications of believing in a property right in one’s “reputation.” Suppose that Brown has produced his mousetrap, and then Robinson comes out with a better one. The “reputation.” of Brown for excellence in mousetraps now declines sharply as consumers shift their attitudes and their purchases, and buy Robinson’s mousetrap instead. Can we not then say, on the principle of the “reputation” theory, that Robinson has injured the reputation of Brown, and can we not then outlaw Robinson from competing with Brown? If not, why not? Or should it be illegal for Robinson to advertise, and to tell the world that his mousetrap is better?5 In fact, of course, people’s subjective attitudes and ideas about someone or his product will fluctuate continually, and hence it is impossible for Brown to stabilize his reputation by coercion; certainly it would be immoral and aggressive against other people’s property right to try. Aggressive and criminal, then, either to outlaw one’s competition or to outlaw false libels spread about one or one’s product.”

    http://mises.org/rothbard/ethics/sixteen.asp

    If you read something and then, “take offence” this is an injury you are doing to yourself, and it has nothing whatsoever to do with the person who wrote what has offended you.

    This is the true nature of the objection to the Old Holborn “Bulger insult” case. Old Holborn wrote something on a space that was rented to him under contract. What he wrote was entirely his business, and all are free to either read it or not read it. Offence is something that people put upon themselves (they literally “take offence” from something), and it is not an act that is done to them. In any case, text cannot act by itself, it is and inanimate.

    These are the true objections to Old Holborn being pursued by the police and the hysterical Liverpudlians who want him imprisoned. They do not understand what rights are, what offence is and the liberties they take for granted. It has been pointed out by others that these same people braying for the blood of Old Holborn said nothing when effigies of Margaret Thatcher were being burned during her funeral. Where was their outrage at the offence taken by Mark Thatcher, his sister and his children at the death of their mother and grandmother? Not only do these people not understand the true nature of rights and offence, but they are entirely hypocritical.

    Its up to everyone who can think to understand the true nature of rights. It is only through an understanding of rights that you can make a correct determination of what should be done when it comes to publishers, as Old Holborn is, and their publications.

    Nothing about this is ambiguous, conditional or hard to understand. It all boils down to property rights.

    I strongly suggest that a small group of insular fanatics should not be allowed to destroy free speech and property rights in the United Kingdom. Their uneducated opinions, backward attitudes and mass hysteria should not be the standard by which an entire country is governed.

    Finally, free speech or anything to do with the true nature of reality and rights is not governed by, “my idea of rights”.

    There is a very clear answer to what rights are, and this answer is very much absolute. Anything less than that is tyranny, either of the mob or of the State. Freedom of speech has nothing to do with any particular use of speech, like “holding the powerful to account” it is a right inherent to all men, springing from the property right everyone has in themselves and the things they acquire by trade or their own efforts. All men, the “little people” and the “ordinary people” have the same rights. Its important not to conflate this with anything that is unrelated to the root of the principle.

    I hope I have been able to clear up some of the thinking on this, and that you get a chance to expand your understanding of what rights are.

    • I agree with some of your points, but not all – your second to last paragraph, for example, makes a very bold claim about the nature of freedom of speech, one that is not shared by everyone. Many, indeed, would say that there are no rights that are ‘inherent to all men’, but suggest that rights are a construct, or a particular language of a particular time.

      What I’m presenting here is my particular perspective on it, one that’s clearly different from yours – in the way that the European perspective of many balanced, nuanced rights is very different from the American perspective of fewer, clearer, more absolute rights, not held in balance but supported absolutely.

      • Hello Paul, and thank you for your insightful post that allowed me to chime in with the correct idea of what rights are.

        There is a clear fallacy in your thinking; the Appeal to the People Fallacy. Just because many people believe something that does not make it true. Murray Rothbard constructs the concept of rights from first principles in a way that is unambiguous and which does not rely on any fallacies. This should be the aim of everyone who has a real interest in this subject; the truth about rights.

        It is simply not good enough to say that “rights are a construct” without offering any evidence for this. Also it is entirely contradictory to argue against the persecution of Old Holborn and then to say in essence that “rights are whatever the majority thinks at any time”. If this really were the case, the Liverpudlians are correct, and you do not have a leg to stand on when they argue that most people do not like Old Holborn and what he writes, therefore he should be arrested and imprisoned.

        I am interested in your perspective, but a perspective is not enough when we are talking about people losing their liberty over speech. Someone else’s perspective is that Old Holborn should be imprisoned immediately; which person is right, and should OH be imprisoned or not? How can we make a determination that we can prove is correct? This is what Murray Rothbard addresses completely.

        This is absolutely not an American perspective, any more than gravity is an American perspective. All human beings are the same, with the same rights that do not vary from country to country, in the same way that human biology does not vary from country to country. You simply cannot claim that, “this is the way we do it here, therefore it is right”. If you believe that, then you have no case against the Liverpudlians or the Saudis (for example) when the government there does whatever it does by dint of your very argument.

        I really hope that you and your readers have time to explore the book I linked to, because it will challenge their deeply held (and mostly government school programmed) ideas about the nature of liberty, the nature of rights and where they come from.

      • I do know a bit about Rothbard – and indeed about libertarian thought. He puts one perspective – but it really isn’t the only perspective, and the fact that you believe so is a touch disappointing. You might try reading Joseph Raz’s The Morality of Freedom for a different perspective – or, from a legal perspective, look at Francesca Klug’s ‘Values for a Godless Age’, which outlines the story of how the UK’s Human Rights Act came about.

    • Words are in fact very powerful and can be used maliciously to cause real harm. The pen is mightier than the sword, it is often said. If I harm you physically, I may be guilty of assault. If it was accidental, I may still owe you some form of compensation as regards your property rights to your own body. If I knowingly harm you psychologically, then why would your property rights to your mind not come into force?

      • This is an interesting argument. You must separate physical harm which can be objectively assessed from psychological harm, which is purely subjective. A person from another culture (to avoid controversy, Ill invoke a Canadian Catholic rather than a Saudi Arabian Muslim) might object to you using a word that to you means literally nothing. They can claim that they have suffered psychological harm through insult, and you might counter claim that they are just being “silly”.

        This is why its important to separate what we can know and what we cannot know, and why in a free society, we only deal with what we can know when we talk about harm to the individual.

        All ideas of harm that are psychological and subjective cannot be the basis of law. Your property right in yourself; your ability to be away from other people, forms of speech and media that are distasteful is what should be used to keep your state of mind free from harm.

        It is extremely wrong and dangerous to rely on the State to determine what is right and wrong in matters of taste and opinion. This is the reason why Britain is suffering its current spate of Twitter prosecutions, censorship and attacks on the press; no one is able to distinguish between real harm and imaginary harm. There are even some who claim that right and wrong are matters of opinion or “perspective”. This is the true nature of the problems facing the British; widespread brainwashing and an inability to reason.

      • On matters of taste and opinion, I have no argument with you. But in other matters such as abusive relationships involving psychological dependency, I think there needs to be a remedy. There are well established psychological syndromes that make it more difficult for people in these situations to exercise the freedom to remove themselves. I also think that in cases where there is an intention to cause unwarranted fear, alarm, or distress there should be a remedy available.

  6. His site used to be the one that everyone headed to in order to find out about corruption and cover ups – he became too “gezellig” as the Dutch say (cozy) with police and their far right followers.

  7. I agree with you about being offensive and offended, but I’m more interest in Old Holborn as a sincere person who wants things I don’t. Quote: “I want them all to die lousy, painful, shit ridden deaths.” Quote: “scum that steals, robs, murders and rapes… for the sheer thrill of it.”

    If you say you want someone else to die, and that they deserve it, you have to be held responsible for your actions. And how do we hold people responsible? I guess the Libertarian way would be to allow people to turn up at Old Holborn’s house and battle it out to their own satisfaction. But my preference is that the police intervene after the words and before the killing starts.

    That doesn’t mean that I don’t Old Holborn’s speech to be free. On the contrary, iI’m glad he said it, so we know how dangerous and unpleasant he is. And now, he must face the consequences of his philosophy

    • Oh, I agree with that completely – and it will be interesting to see what happens as a result of all of this. Old Holborn has been revealed, in more ways than one, and that will have consequences. I would be surprised, now, if the police didn’t intervene in one way or another.

    • Saying that you want some others to “die lousy, painful, shit ridden deaths” or “I wish someone would cave Michael Gove’s face in with a cricket bat” – neither of these things are actions, they are expressions. They are not performative. At most they are the expression (sincere or otherwise) of a wish. There is nothing at all wrong with that, nor certainly any legal consequences which the speaker must face. Morally that person may have a case to answer, but the people making threats are the ones actually breaking the law here.

  8. Good post. I think we’re roughly on the same page. I have to choose my words with care, but I can see only two scenarios playing out here: either Old Holborn is given the sort of beating he’d get if he’d made those comments across the bar in a Bootle pub (and yes I know the theatre/pub/street analogies can be a bit creaky) or he doesn’t, and the threats all fizzle out.

    Either of those outcomes will be enormously interesting. In the latter case, from what I can see of it, people have got involved who may have a tendency to provide a more direct sort of feedback than writing snarky blog posts about the New Statesman or writing a stiff letter to the Controller of Radio 4. If you get my drift.

    So if, with motive and means both there, the offline retribution for online behaviour doesn’t materialise, then it will send a powerful signal that one really can say anything online (as long as it doesn’t break the law) with no fear for the consequences. Which will either be really good or really bad news, depending on your viewpoint.

    I wrote about these issues yesterday, just as things were kicking off: http://paulclarke.com/honestlyreal/2013/04/roll-up-roll-up/

    • Thanks – and I think we are pretty much on the same page. Your post is a bit more direct, I think, and makes the points much more clearly! It will be very interesting to see which of the scenarios plays out here, but I think there may be a third, slightly messier one. There were rumours going around yesterday that he had either lost his job or been suspended from it – he might lose something in his real life, but not quite so directly as he would in a Bootle bar room. Whether he loses enough to ‘silence’ him or even slightly ‘temper’ his words is another matter!

  9. They can be offended. The point is it should have FUCK ALL to do with the police. I do not and will not accept that the ‘consequences’ of free speech should ever involve a copper coming to my door. Or OH’s.

    • Would you rather have a mob with torches and pitchforks come to your door than a copper? And if a copper DID come to your door, what would you do to ‘not accept’ it? Refuse to open the door? Like it or not (and I can see that you don’t), the law does apply – I’m all for loosening the law, indeed for getting rid of some of the laws, but I’m not going to pretend they don’t exist, nor that the government can’t find a way to enforce them.

  10. The thing about OH is that he’s a troll. And the issue here is an expression of Internet Subculture.

    Not a troll as the media likes to portray it, the ones who send explicit rape/murder threats to female journalists. Those folks would be better categorised as ‘shitposters’.

    A ‘true’ Internet Troll, I would argue, is the sort of person who will make a statement, or perform an action, that appears reasonable, but is expressly designed to incite rage in others (like pointing out to a group of Scientologists that, per their own scriptures, their leader is Doing It Wrong). The very best trolls can do so in a manner so subtle you don’t even know they’re doing it until you’re already frothing.

    OH is not a subtle troll, but a very effective one. I may disagree with what he says, but his ability to incite abuse from other people is formidable. People actually seek out his Twitter so they can read it and get upset. And like any troll, he loves the hate, because it means he’s struck a nerve with someone. Maximum response from minimum effort, the sign of a Successful Troll.

    But the thing about Trolling is that it goes wonky sometimes. Because if you troll the wrong person in the wrong way, you get blowback. The troll knows this, and, indeed, expects it. The Twitterstorm backlash, the alledged death threats, the dumping of personal information… It’s all part of the game. OH has had his dox dropped before, by supposed Libertarian allies, but he got over it. The only difference here is that someone’s complained to Inspector Knacker (which is going to be an interesting one to follow)

    • Yes, he’s a consummate troll in most ways – he knows his game. But, as you say, once Inspector Knacker’s involved, the game changes. And Inspector Knacker does seem to be involved, by most accounts.

  11. The Daily Telegraph’s definition of ‘free speech’ is this: “We can say nasty things that are not true about disabled people , but you can’t say nasty things that are true about Thatcher .”

  12. I wonder quite what he expected. Then I figure he either expected to get away with it, which leads to all sorts of socio-political considerations, or he was hoping for attention, which leads to concerns about his mental wellbeing.

    I do not agree with what he says, but i defend to his death his right to run his mouth (fingers) off and be as abusive as he likes.

    Is he not a libertarian? Why is he hiding behind state power now? Surely Freedom of Speech relies on The Big Bad State to protect it – I’d have thought in Libertopia one speaks out prepared to fight (physically if so) for what one has said. Or, of course, pay others to fight for what you’ve said.

    I don’t think he should face any sort of legal action, but nor do I consider it abhorrent that he might. It is insulting to argue that such abusiveness should come under ‘free speech’.

    • Something of a side note, but what’s the deal with pudgy middle aged men all fantasising that they’re V and/or Guy Fawkes? Can’t they just save it for inside their heads, and the occasional comicon?

    • I’ll be watching how this all unfolds – the police are apparently involved, but that could go a number of ways. The DPP’s guidance on social media prosecutions suggests there should be a high bar set before any prosecutions are made, but how high remains to be seen.

    • I struggle with the notion that you can abuse someone indirectly. To read something (in a book, or a letter that was not addressed to you) and take offense is not to suffer abuse.

  13. I do understand flayman‘s distinction between performative actions and expressions – but I’m not helped by it.

    Last summer, I met a man in London who told me I was a paedophile, and he was going to cut my throat. I ended up in hospital with stab wounds, but his words didn’t perform the actions, and neither, for the Searle fans among you, did they turn me into a paedophile. (And yes, I was offended, because I don’t like paedophiles either.)

    The key issue at stake for me is, at what point should I stop respecting, and start retaliating? It wouldn’t have been wise to wait until I was rolling on the ground, choking on my own blood. And in a society that puts responsibility for justice in the organs of the state, at what point do we expect the police and the courts to get involved in policing expressions of wilful malice towards one another?

    I noticed that OH, who calls himself a Libertarian and regards taxation as slavery, adjusted his beliefs and telephoned the state-funded police pretty quickly, after (in his words) “insulting one group of people too far”.

    • Libertarianism is all very well until you get into difficulties… when you start to realise there’s a reason for a state infrastructure, a reason for law etc. I don’t know where we draw the lines on these things either – that’s where I have problems with people trying to be ‘purist’ about free speech, about the separation of speech and action and so on. It can be a very rough-and-ready business.

    • You were clearly in peril, and so your choices were fairly limited. You could not simply ignore what was happening. In order to protect yourself you needed to either fight or take flight. Naturally in such circumstances you ought to be able to rely on assistance from law enforcement who have a duty to protect us from crime. That assault (and the threat of it) clearly is a crime. There is no doubt. Words cannot assault, but they can threaten. OH never threatened anyone, unlike many who decided to retaliate against him. Those people were more misguided than he could be said to have been. All he did was make some nasty remarks capable of being very insulting to a section of the populace. In the words of Lord Chief Justice Judge:

      “The [Communications Act 2003] did not create some newly minted interference with the first of President Roosevelt’s essential freedoms – freedom of speech and expression. Satirical, or iconoclastic, or rude comment, the expression of unpopular or unfashionable opinion about serious or trivial matters, banter or humour, even if distasteful to some or painful to those subjected to it should and no doubt will continue at their customary level, quite undiminished by this legislation. Given the submissions by Mr Cooper, we should perhaps add that for those who have the inclination to use “Twitter” for the purpose, Shakespeare can be quoted unbowdlerised, and with Edgar, at the end of King Lear, they are free to speak not what they ought to say, but what they feel.”

      Chambers v DPP, paragraph 28
      http://www.judiciary.gov.uk/Resources/JCO/Documents/Judgments/chambers-v-dpp.pdf

  14. The other day I tweeted that I thought actual threats to do harm (via Twitter or elsewhere) are inherently more serious that offensive “jokes” or comments, no matter how bad these may be. Someone argued that you can choose not to be threatened in the same way you can choose not to take offence. I’m not convinced you can choose either.
    If someone who knows my address says, directly to me that they are going to do me harm it is only sensible to take that seriously. However if someone mentions that someone has said something extremely offensive about me and I go looking for that, maybe I *am* choosing to be offended. I have ample opportunity to ignore it.
    The two situations seem entirely different and surely should not be treated in the same way.

      • The law’s just an *approximate* wrapper around social norms though. What I’m seeing here is a sense of levelling, across class and technological barriers. The law has always said you can’t smack someone in the mouth for calling your family names in a pub. The internet – generally – lets you get away with doing just that, quite safely. The smack in the mouth might be “wrong” in every case, but there are an awful lot of parts of our population for whom it’s still just the way things work. In this case, driven by the extreme nature of the insults and the vehement pride of the group being insulted, the bar room has risen up in OH’s face. And might well smack him in the mouth. Or take away his employment (in just the way that a football fan would if involved in egregious conduct at an overseas away match). So never mind all this hand-wringing about freedom of speech and rule of law and the like. This is, simply, an overturning of barriers – shields made out of keyboards, screens and attitude – to deliver precisely the sort of response you might expect in the street. Which is more novel than you might think.

      • There is no “smack in the mouth” here. That would be physical assault. Sticks and stones. It is certainly possible to abuse someone verbally, but I don’t see how you can do that indirectly. Your phrase “vehement pride of the group being insulted” stands out. I may incur the wrath of the extreme right by disrespecting soldiers or the late Margaret Thatcher (both political statements). I will not deny the strength of feeling, but these people don’t get to suppress my expression of thought.

      • I’m not sure I completely accept the ‘sticks and stones’ argument: sometimes words really can harm, can’t they? And the ‘group’ argument is a touch contentious too, particularly for groups that are subject to prejudice or even oppression, wouldn’t you say?

      • Paul Clarke’s comment seems accurate. The original insults in the pub would not usually be legally punished would they? Though the retaliatory punch in the mouth may well be, in which case the original insult would possibly be considered a mitigating factor.

      • Some kinds of words could constitute public order offences – even racially aggravated public order offences – but in general that’s right, I’m sure.

      • I’m eventually homing in on my point here. Bear with me. What I’m getting it is that much of this debate is hilariously middle-class, school-debate “oh but he punched me, constable and I *insist* on him being charged with assault” which might well be the case after a fracas on Waterloo station platform 9 after some particularly heavy delays at commuter time but simply has no equivalent concept in boozers in 95% of this country. The whack is delivered, the provoker limps off, the cold cloth is applied, and everyone moves on.

        What I’m tickled by is the concept that, driven by this particular blend of passions and people, we might just see the same community/jungle treatment being dispensed to someone who sat behind a keyboard. And if that did happen, it would be pretty novel, but it shouldn’t actually be very surprising, and we should be no more morally outraged (nor clutching our pearls as we bemoan the death of “free speech”) as we should be EVERY BLOODY TIME THIS HAPPENS EVERY TEN MINUTES EVERY SATURDAY NIGHT IN EVERY TOWN IN THIS COUNTRY WHEN SOMEBODY ACTS THE TWAT. The keyboard and screen don’t make you special. Or immune if someone really does want to bother looking you up and paying a 200 mile visit. It’s a bother for them to do so, but their physical extension into your troll-life is only a matter of being bothered enough. Just sometimes, if someone is bothered enough (or can call up local sympathetic support to save on the petrol money) you might still get busted.

        Sometimes it would be nice if internet theoreticians would just get out of their own arses for a bit and acknowledge the normality of everyday nastiness. That’s how it is.

      • I think I agree – certainly with your characterisation of the debate. We all need to understand it’s a ‘rough and ready’ world out there, and we need to take that approach online as well. Less precious. Less easily offended.

      • I suppose I transposed the smack in the mouth with the original insult, whereas Paul Clarke was comparing it to the retaliation. As for the group argument, I only meant that groups which might feel insulted do not have the right to seek revenge. Hate speech may be proscribed, but I think this approach should only be taken with targeted abuse or incitement. I quote Tugendhat J:

        “…pluralism requires members of society to tolerate the dissemination of information and views which they believe to be false and wrong. This can be difficult for people to understand, especially if the subject is an important one and they are so convinced of the rightness of their views that they believe that any different view can only be the result of prejudice. Welcoming pluralism cannot be justified by logic. But in a society where people in fact hold inconsistent views about important matters, pluralism is a practical necessity if that society is to be free”

        [Trimingham v. Associated Newspapers [2012] 4 All ER 717]

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