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Freedom of speech and an end to prosecuting every idiot with a Twitter account

    With the new year here, six authors connected with the CPS outline a policy resolution they would like to see adopted by the government in 2013. In the final instalment, CPS social media manager Lewis Brown looks at why the most repugnant social media controversies are in many ways the most important. Earlier, education expert Tom Burkard wrote on vouchers for Special Needs students

    So 2012 is over and we leave behind a year that was full of social media controversy. Whether it was over Tom Daley, Fabrice Muamba, April Jones or poppies, the Twitter and Facebook police were out in force over the last twelve months. Of course, spending a good portion of the working day on these sites gives one the opportunity to see many tweets of comparable or worse taste that slip through the cracks, unnoticed by the masses. Should my New Year’s Policy Resolution be a new executive agency under the purview of the Home Office, tasked with enforcing a detailed legislative outline of what is permitted and ready to bring the offenders to justice at the publish of a tweet?

    With the ever increasing prevalence of social media (I joined the masses who know what it feels like to be added by your Nan last night), we often look aghast at examples from other nations (India, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, etc.) of people being locked up for innocuous posts. Yet here we are perfectly happy to demand the punishment of the foolish, the uneducated or the intoxicated.

    The fate of those who indulge in racist, homophobic, or other language is often called out, shared and vilified on social media, as in the case of Tom Daley or Fabrice Muamba’s abusers. Stan Collymore, an opinionated football pundit, is often racially abused in response to tweets on inane footballing details. He responds well, by retweeting his abuser and bringing the attention and wrath of his feed upon them.

    Being shamed on social media for a ridiculous comment is its own punishment. The severity of the offence could, and sometimes does, lead to someone losing their job – if a company feels it would not like someone who posts publicly in such a disgraceful manner representing them, they should be commended for their decision. But to insist the state arrests for this kind of stupidity is beyond any kind of reason. It is the insanity of ‘intolerance of intolerance’. People should be entitled to their prejudices, as we should be entitled to call them out, debate, argue, try to convince them, or block them from our feed. It is the state’s job to stop you treating anyone else with hatred in such a way that you deny them their rights – to work, to go about the day without fear of harm, to be treated in a fair and equitable manner in our transactions – it is not the job of the state to police the thoughts of people, or protect others from being offended (or at least it won’t be soon, thank goodness).

    So why write about these louts? Why are ‘free speech’ advocates often so interested in defending those who have plainly done wrong? We need these idiots in society to tell us where the boundaries are, to act as examples of what is wrong. The response I’ve encountered to many of the more infamous examples I mentioned is “you can’t say anything anymore”. This in turn breeds more division, more hatred, more prejudice and perpetuates itself. Voltaire is often paraphrased down to "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it". The worse you think an opinion is, the more this applies. 

    The truth is, these people are a buffer for the rest of us – an indication of how we may be treated down the line. I’m sure everyone who calls for the arrest of someone who reproduces a joke they saw on Sickipedia thirty seconds prior has the best of intentions.

    But so did those who wrote Section 5 of the Public Order Act, that was used to arrest a student for calling a police horse gay. So did those who introduced Labour’s anti-terrorism laws that they thought were needed to protect the public, but were really used to arrest teenage girls in “Bollocks to Blair” t-shirts.

    The internet label “troll”, which once meant to post something off-topic intending to elicit emotional response, has evolved to a dual meaning of someone who does anything thought ‘sick’ on the internet, as well as being bandied about to mean anyone presenting a different opinion to the discussion originator (taking the opposite opinion is on-topic and therefore not trolling). The natural progression of arresting people for their opinions – no matter how distasteful or repellent – is a case like the Twitter Joke Trial – a joke deemed unacceptable by officials. From there we have people whose opinions are different from the Government’s. Thank God no one is proposing anything crazy like a state regulatory system for anyone wanting to publish, or monitoring everyone’s personal communications; things could really get messy in those nightmare scenarios!

    Our right to free speech, a freedom as fundamental as any human right, is constantly under threat from the leviathan modern state. We must protect our prejudiced fools. That’s why in 2013 I would like to see our commitment to free speech enshrined in law in the same way America enjoys the First Amendment, as well as the Director of Public Prosecutions following through on his indications that the ridiculous regime of social media prosecutions will come to an end. This would require dumping those that argue for the status quo on the Bill of Rights Commission, and embracing the belief in the idea. We can all play a part in combating online hatred, but only when we have all been protected from falling foul of the state.  

    Lewis joined the Centre for Policy Studies in April 2011 with responsibility for social media and digital engagement.

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