This is a sensitive subject and I’m aware that I’m going to attract some criticism. But that’s ok, I have the freedom to express myself and you have the freedom to respond. That’s the nature of free speech – I can say something that you don’t like and you can say something that I don’t like in response.
This is a cornerstone of freedom. Governments seek to suppress it and revolutions are fought to restore it. Freedom of speech is a basic mechanism (along with democracy and freedom of the press) by which liberty is maintained.
Almost all of us would agree that freedom of speech is desirable when opposing totalitarianism, but what happens when we find that speech to be offensive?
Recently we have seen two men jailed for sending offensive ‘tweets’ about the death of schoolteacher Ann Maguire. We don’t know what Robert Riley tweeted, but Jake Newsome is reported as tweeting that he was “glad she had been stabbed” and that perpetrator should have “p***** on her too”.
Last year we saw Neil Phillips being arrested and questioned by police after tweeting tasteless jokes about Nelson Mandela.
I’m certainly not going to argue that these tweets were not offensive or tasteless, nor that the tweeters should not have had more sense, but the problem here is that we have given the Police, the CPS and the courts the power to determine the boundaries of acceptable speech.
It comes under the Public Order Act of 1986 (note that was Mrs Thatcher’s government; this isn’t a Labour issue) which covers “…any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting, thereby causing that or another person harassment, alarm or distress”.
• Threatening? OK
• Harassment? OK
• Abusive? Possibly, but open to interpretation.
• Insulting or causing distress? That’s ridiculous!
Consider this – I (along with many others) believe that Tony Blair misled Parliament in order to take Britain into war in Iraq. Mr Blair would certainly find that insulting, so am I guilty under the Public Order Act? Is Mehdi Hasan guilty for publishing this opinion in the New Statesman? Is Neil Clarke guilty for openly accusing Blair of war crimes in TheWeek? If not, why not?
The problem is that government is trying to legislate on a subjective social issue. It’s not like theft or murder which can be proved in an objective manner. The unauthorised transfer of property or the taking of life are quantifiable. Taking offence and being insulted are not.
Now, you may think that I am getting worked up about nothing and that there is a world of difference between accusing an ex-Prime Minister of war crimes and some oaf tweeting something stupid but that’s my point – legally there is no difference. It’s down to how a bureaucrat or police officer interprets it.
This law is so open to abuse and misinterpretation that it needs to be amended. Protections need to remain against genuine wrongdoing, but the words ‘insulting’ and ‘distress’ should be removed.
If they aren’t, we are in danger of finding ourselves in a country where opinions that we currently consider to be acceptable are criminalised.
Think I am being alarmist? Think about this – if Dan Hodges or someone like him were to be in a position of authority, do you think that UKIP would be allowed to say half the things that it does?