Opinion: A Dangerous Precedent
On Monday, the Daily Mail ( I know, I know I shouldn’t be reading it, shush!) reported that a 17-year-old boy had been arrested for making a ‘malicious communication’. This unpleasant little specimen of humanity sent a tweet aimed at British diver Tom Daley, who’d just missed out on a medal in the synchronised diving, to the effect that he had let down his deceased father by his failure to win Olympic glory. Classy, right? Clearly he’s an odious little twerp.
But if people can be arrested for being odious little twerps, then we all have reason to worry. This latest incident seems to fit a pattern of heavy-handed police response to fairly run-of-the-mill episodes of internet nastiness in the UK, and given how our own justice system tends to model itself on the one across the water, we all need to sit up and take notice.
Last March, another real gent named Liam Stacey was arrested for a nasty Twitter-based tirade about Bolton Wanderers footballer Fabrice Muamba, who collapsed in cardiac arrest mid-game (and has since made a truly miraculous recovery – all hail the pitchside defibrillator). Stacey’s series of tweets had a significant racist element, which makes it even harder to feel any sympathy for him, but doesn’t necessarily qualify him as someone who set about to incite racial hatred. He was convicted of a public order offence, which, to my understanding, is an action which causes public disorder or interferes with the normal ability of people to go about their legitimate business (correct me if I’m way off line here, law-talking folks). It’s hard to see how Stacey’s ‘crime’ amounted to this, yet he was convicted and sentenced to 56 days in jail.
So just when did it become illegal, in the UK anyway, to be a dickhead? And in the future, who is going to decide just what qualifies as malicious communication? We all have days when we’d like to lock up people who annoy us, or are mean to us, or are clearly so thick and ignorant that freedom seems a luxury they shouldn’t be entitled to. But there are good reasons we aren’t allowed to do that. One person’s unacceptable speech is another’s political protest, and while neither of the bottom-feeders above are exactly Martin Luther King, you’ve got to have very good reasons for letting the state impose restrictions on what its citizens can and can’t say.
LIke a lot of lefty-types, I do believe there’s a limited place for curtailment of free speech – when someone is genuinely inciting hatred in a way that poses a real threat to others, or when an individual is being subjected to a sustained campaign of harassment. But locking somebody up for a carelessly thrown-off internet rant comes dangerously close to punishing thoughtcrime.
The case of Paul Chambers, convicted in May 2010 for making a clearly tongue-in-cheek ‘threat’ to blow up Robin Hood airport in Doncaster, is a little more complex. In an age of very real danger from terrorist groups, potential threats to airport security are taken very seriously indeed, and no police force wants to be in the position of having ignored a warning sign before a major disaster. But even a cursory check into the incident would have told the police that this frustrated traveller’s tweet had zero credibility as a threat. Chambers’ appeal against his conviction was recently upheld by the High Court, to the relief of a great many people who have serious concerns about erosion of our civil liberties.
It’s unpalatable to find yourself in the position of defending people who are clearly not very nice at all. What Daley’s teenage harrasser did, and what Liam Stacey did, was abhorrent, cruel and mean-spirited (Paul Chambers’ act was thoughtless rather than in any way malicious). But crappy individuals deserve the same protection of the law as the rest of us virtuous folk, and the right to free speech can’t be a privilege reserved only for those people who think the same way we do.
I usually detest the term ‘slippery slope’, but British justice seems to have already started down one. Somebody needs to put the brakes on. And in the meantime, we’d all better watch what we say.