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Free speech, inciting hatred, and what (if anything) we should do about it.

By on Oct 11, 2012 in General Musing | 0 comments

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In the past few days (and in actual fact the past few months), a number of interesting cases have come up in the courts. One, the man who made gross, obscene and generally abhorrent comments on his Facebook page about April Jones and Madeline McCann, who has been sent to prison. Two, the main who has just been jailed for 4 months for wearing a horrible shirt pro-Police officer deaths immediately after the Manchester shooting (whose son, as caveat, died in Police custody). Three, the man who posted that “all soldiers should die and go to hell” on his Facebook page, who just received a sentence of community service and a fine. Three separate cases all of which saw someone exercising their official right to free speech, and being arrested and consequently sentenced as a direct result of it.

This worries me. Deep inside, despite not liking or agreeing with anything that any of these three people have said, I fear for free speech. We live in an attempt at a democracy, and one of the most important rights we have is the right to free speech. The right to believe whatever we want, and say what we want. On the one hand, the right to make change, stand up for things we believe. On the other hand, the darker side, the right to say horrible things and not be prosecuted for saying them. By defining what is good and what is bad, what is allowed and what isn’t, free speech is no longer free.

Of course, an aim for full blown free speech is perhaps naive. In order to maintain a “functioning” society, even my most idealistic self can understand that we need to police some forms of self expression. People cannot just act how they want to, of course – they can’t hurt people and abuse people whilst exercising their “right to choose”. In the same vein, free speech cannot be a pure thing – if someone is inciting racial hatred, causing deaths (such as the anti-Islam video that led to many deaths around the world), or otherwise preaching something that causes the breaking of laws that are put in place for societal good, then I agree that the possibility should be there that these people are brought to task for their words. Words are often as powerful as actions, after all – and are fully capable of making people take actions they wouldn’t have otherwise.

But just saying offensive things? I don’t feel that should be prosecution worthy. And neither, in fact, does the Director of public prosecutions, Keir Starmer. Even if the things you are saying are downright despicable, unless they are actually inciting hate or encouraging/recommending illegal actions, you shouldn’t go to jail for them. You should be able to say the most horrific things you like, and we simply have to rely on the fact that, hopefully society will shun you for saying them. I’m not talking vigilante mobs like that which ganged up to attack Matthew Wood – more that people will complain about what you have posted, disagree, argue. I’m taking a stand for the domination of the greater force for good. Hopefully some basic level of common decency will endure, as it always has to some degree. The only difference? A gross comment on Facebook need be as badly received as something distasteful and horrible uttered down the pub.

So, what to take from this? Hopefully it sounds like the recent rash of prosecutions will tail off, in favour of self-policing. If you see someone making comments like this, trolling and generally being abhorrent, tell them. Calmly, sensibly. Then, rather than engaging in argument or attention-raising, leave. Ignore. If enough people bring someone down, without inciting a mob, maybe that will be as much of a job as any real policing will.

What do you think?

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