A ramble through my mind on some points of Freedom of Speech

So, over the past couple of weeks another two high profile case of police investigating things said over Twitter.

First Up, Paris Brown, the appointed Youth Police and Crime Commissioner whose years old tweets apparently referring to hash brownies, underage drinking "pikeys" and "fags" have caused media to hound her and for her to lose her job as Youth PCC.

While I may find reaction to the hash brownies and under age drinking to be disappointing and indicative of a society which doesn't want to engage with those issues, her use of "fags" upsets me and offends me ("pikeys" too, but "fags" is more directly offensive). I think they are cause for concern and now that she has been called out on them I would expect her to quickly alter how she engages with those issues. If the disrespect continues then losing her public role could be appropriate. But for the police to investigate the comments is absurd and evidence of a major shadow over freedom of speech in the UK.

Similarly Old Holborn, a well-followed twitter account who has never particularly interested me, is being investigated by police over tweets he made about Jamie Bulger and the Hillsborough disaster. Again, the police are investigating. His comments may be tasteless, inaccurate, offensive but to be investigated as criminal is extremely disturbing.

More disturbing than anything he (or Paris Brown) have said.

Neither has worked to incite violence and yet they are being investigated as criminals.

I am disturbed that as a society, 50 people reported Paris' reports (as reported in the media) to the police. That other people have chosen to report Old Holborn's tweets to the police. That our response to offence, to tastelessness, is the police. This is not where mindlessly following a policy led to Paul Chambers getting charged, this is people making an active choice to do this.

That's terrifying.

Now I come to the potential hypocrisy. I have written about and discussed articles written by journalists which have been grossly offensive. I am struggling over whether any new Code of Conduct for the press should allow people who are offended as part of a group (rather than just an individual targeted by an article) should have rights of redress - an area frustratingly overlooked in the PCC code at present.

An article spreading hatred or dehumanisation in a major newspaper which has an editorial team checking and approving is a whole different thing to an individual not usually in the public eye tweeting or blogging a similar level of hatred. The Mail, The Guardian, The Sun, The BBC all have an influence on public understanding and mood - do they also have a duty or responsibility to that? At what point should such a duty start? How does it interact with Free Speech?

I am fervently against no platform policies. I believe that failure to engage with dangerous ideas does nothing but allow those ideas to spread and fester. Challenging them quickly is necessary. I have a mantra I hope to live by which is that freedom of speech comes with the responsibility to shout bullshit. No platform policies deny that responsibility. Does a Code of Conduct denying such a article a platform in those places we deem to be significant similarly shirk that responsibility?

On the other hand, I do not get unfettered access to the platform afforded by the front page (or any other page) of the Daily Mail (it would be very different if I did). That platform is controlled already. Twitter, Blogger etc all allow (for the most part) a platform for freedom of speech. Is that enough?

I also remember that I can choose to ignore a platform or a writer I don't like (although if people would please put warnings about links to The Mail or articles on The Register by Andrew Orlowski I would be much happier).

I don't have answers - even for myself. I tend towards less regulation, less right for redress despite the pain that sometimes brings.

Alex
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