“We’ve all got to learn to be a lot less bloody touchy”, asserted Times journalist and political commentator, David Aaronovitch last week in a debate entitled ‘The Right To Offend?’ Though his phrasing was more acerbic, Aaronovitch’s argument put me in mind of similar statement made over a century ago by the Victorian philosopher John Stuart Mill in which he said: “The beliefs which we have most warrant for, have no safeguard to rest on, but a standing invitation to the whole world to prove them unfounded.”
Now, 125 years later, and the explosive expansion of social media have indeed made such an invitation truly global. Software like Twitter and Facebook means that anyone in the world with a smartphone now has access to a potentially global platform for their opinions – the reach of which, just a few years ago, would have been mostly restricted to those in immediate earshot. This vast proliferation, Aaronovitch argued, will continue to cause such a ‘cacophony’ of ideas and opinions that it could render futile those laws designed to curtail free expression on the basis that it might offend people.
This is a good thing. Freedom of expression is sign of a free, open and progressive society – progressive in that it allows for the constant refinement and growth of new ideas. Freedom of speech sets the course for the collision of opinions and the emergence of new truths. To compel opinions to silence and deny the possibility they might be true, Mill said, would be to assume our own infallibility.
However, there is a sinister side to social media software too: in that it increasingly plays an active role in assisting the state prosecute those whose opinions it deems ‘offensive’. An opinion expressed in the pub will be heard by those nearby and then vanish into the ether; a tweet or Facebook wall post can be photographed via screenshot, printed out and then used as documentary evidence against its author.
As I have written before, embracing free speech means swallowing the fact that much of what is said is disagreeable and in bad taste. We may find others’ opinions to be utterly execrable – sick, even. That is our opinion. Who is to say who is right? With the caveat that they are not inciting violence or making a threat, offensive opinions should be ignored or, better still, demolished in argument. It is certainly not for the state to embark in the messy, authoritarian business of deciding what opinions should be permitted and what should be prohibited.
And yet this is precisely what it is doing. Under section 127 of the 2003 Communications Act, an individual can be prosecuted for sending by means of a public electronic communication network a message that is deemed “grossly offensive”.
In recent months, this oppressive law has been put into full effect. A few weeks ago, Azhar Ahmed was prosecuted for writing a message online that said: “all soldiers should die and go to hell.” The 20 year-old from Ravensthorpe was fined £300 and sentenced to 240 hours of community service. Needless to say, I do not in any way condone Ahmed’s vile comments, but I find it more offensive that he received more hours of community service for expressing an opinion, than the comedian Justin Lee Collins did for a sustained campaign of domestic abuse against his partner, Anna Larke.
Around the same time, 19 year-old Matthew Woods was jailed for three months for making explicit comments and jokes regarding the missing five year-old, April Jones, and Madeleine McCann, the three year-old who in 2007 disappeared from her family holiday home in Portugal. The “reason for the sentence”, Chairman of the Bench, Bill Hudson explained, “is the seriousness of the offence, the public outrage that has been caused”. Wood’s comments were abhorrent, certainly; but causing ‘public outrage’ by posting a ‘joke’ online does not deserve a jail sentence. It was on this basis – that of making a joke and not a threat – that the conviction of Paul Chambers – who had joked about blowing up Robin Hood airport should snow cause it to close and prevent him from seeing his new girlfriend – was this summer overturned and rightfully so.
The Crown Prosecution Service is now looking at how to treat social media and electronic communication in light of these cases in which people gave received significant sentences for posting ‘offensive’ remarks. It should repeal section 127 of the Communications Act. It is absurd that in this day and age people can be imprisoned simply for having opinions others find ‘offensive’. A society based on free-speech is not always a pleasant one: people will say vile, disgusting things, but we should be confident enough in our own beliefs that they can withstand this test. Ultimately, all that banning the opinions of others achieves is to reveal the insecurity of our own.