Freedom of speech is one of the foundations of a democracy and must be protected as far as is reasonably possible, writes Mike Morgan-Giles.
Recently, we’ve seen freedom of speech online in the spotlight, with Hugh Grant even saying on Newsnight he thought Twitter should be regulated. He later backtracked, realising no doubt this would align him with the Chinese approach to a basic human right.
However, there is an important point here. There is a continual stream of criminal cases arising from Twitter, with perhaps the most well known being the infamous Robin Hood airport incident.
The most recent have focused around the racial abuse aimed at footballers such as Fabrice Muamba and Anton Ferdinand.
In an ideal society, people should be able to speak freely about any topic on any medium, with society itself policing the output and people being judged accordingly.
However, over the course of time, clearly society hasn’t been able to go about this effectively, explaining why laws have developed around protected features such as race, disability, religion and sexual orientation.
John Stuart Mill believed freedom of speech should extend to the point where significant harm was done to others – which is where libel and defamation laws came in. The intention of these was perhaps noble, but not only did they fail to effectively provide legal discourse to those unable to fund a civil law suit, they also didn’t protect vulnerable people in the first place.
Instead, UK libel law resulted in a slew of super injunctions, protecting the very rich from being held to account in public. The most recent, involving environment secretary Caroline Spelman, was overturned this week when her son was banned from rugby for taking steroids.
Essentially, while members of the public find themselves instantly up in front of the courts for libellous or ‘menacing’ comments, the rich have been able to hide behind the UK’s archaic libel laws.
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Further questions must now also arise from the government’s intention to legislate to introduce a new ‘Snoopers Bill’ – their proposals will give them access to view the emails, texts, phone calls and internet usage of any member of the public, which has unsurprisingly resulted in significant opposition. This again could lead to further prosecutions of those issuing ‘menacing communications’, which if applied too rigidly could be a worrying development.
This is clearly a most unsatisfactory situation. Wholesale changes are required around libel rules – to bring the rich in line with others and to give greater protection to freedom of speech. The government must also look to abandon its Orwellian plans to snoop on people’s online and phone activity.
However, as I’ve previously advised politicians, every Tweet made is essentially a mini press release. This doesn’t mean they need to be mundane, but does mean thought and sensibility should be used each time. This is the position all users should look to, and doing so will help enhance a system of self-regulation, much reducing the need for criminal justice interventions.
Freedom of speech is one of the foundations of a democracy and must be protected as far as is reasonably possible. While the government must introduce some important reforms, internet users must stand up and be counted too.
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