It seems clichéd to embed the enlightenment maxim “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” in any article discussing freedom of speech.
The quote – often attributed to Voltaire, but really belonging to a biographer – should be fundamental to European and UK law. However, this basic principle has been persistently ignored in considering the legality of flippant Facebook and Twitter comments. For now, we have to continue exhausting this well-worn saying.
The judicial and legislative systems haven’t adapted well to the rise of social media; hence Matthew Woods’ twelve-week jail sentence for his vile Facebook comments about the missing five-year-old April Jones. I don’t think it necessary to retype Woods’ lonely and pathetic attempts to come across shocking. However, as bad as the comments are, protecting Woods will also help protect our own freedom of speech. Given that the morality of any one comment, person or idea is, broadly speaking, subjective; what stops a critique of, say, religion constituting as ‘disrespectful’ or ‘offensive’ to the point of illegality. Being offended is too often the sole reason a person should be silenced. A better solution to hateful speech is to use one’s own freedom of speech to debate or argue people like Woods.
The authorities should not concern themselves with such comments (unless, importantly, these comments seriously incite or threaten violence). Their job description does not include vetting the tastes of even the most hateful people. To put the severe sentence in context, Justin Lee Collins received community service for mentally abusing his ex-girlfriend through jealousy and the threat of violence. When compared to Woods’ twelve-weeks in prison for offensive speech it begs the question: which is the more abhorrent crime?
A better way of dealing with internet ‘trolls’ is to address why they feel the compulsion to say ridiculous and nasty comments online. Does the power of offense, and the illusion of immunity, rub their megalomaniacal G-spot? Perhaps the courts and those who support
the sentencing, such as Christina Patterson of The Independent, gain similar pleasure from shattering Woods’ illusion of immunity and power with hefty jail time. Tellingly, there was applause in the court as the judge announced the sentence; a strangely sadistic
sense of restitution. The courts should not exist to satisfy people’s sense of righteousness.
A more alarming by-product of criminalising internet idiots is when this sense of righteousness misfires. Kneejerk reactions to internet comments are rife. For example, Paul Chambers’ ironic joke about “blowing the [Robin Hood] airport sky high” after some flight cancellations resulted in a lengthy legal ordeal starting in January 2010. He was clearly kidding. After three appeals, he was eventually cleared in July 2012. (However, surely some compensation is due given that the case cost him two jobs!) Also, the authorities’ initial blindness to irony and satire signals dire consequences satirists whose job it is to keep this establishment in check.
In both the Woods and Chambers cases, the courts have failed to understand the nature of Twitter and Facebook. It’s called social media for a reason; like normal conversations, all the stupidity and nonsense remains intact. Social media runs parallel to social life, not as definitive documents of one’s views. Such comments, whether it be Matthew Woods’ insensitivity or Chambers’ insincerity, were not intended by either person as clean, self-censored versions of their original thoughts.
Paul Chambers, however, had twitter campaigns of support from various comedians: Graham Lineham, Al Murray and Stephen Fry. They recognised that their professions are threatened by curbing freedom of speech even in seemingly insignificant cases. (This also highlighted how social media is largely a good thing – not just a mouthpiece for morons.)
Similar support should be shown for Matthew Woods because protecting his rights is for our benefit as much as it is for his. Until the authorities become less sensitive, Twitter trials and Facebook court cases will remain commonplace to all of our detriment.