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….