The right to talk crap
“John” was one of the callers to the Nicky Campbell Radio 5 live phone-in last Friday, which was all about freedom of speech, in the light of Paul Chambers’ unsuccessful appeal against his conviction for sending a menacing communication (the now infamous Twitter Joke Trial) and the arrest of Tory Councillor Gareth Compton for making a twitter comment about stoning Yasmin Alibhai-Brown.
John was appalled. “You can’t say anything” anymore, he complained. For instance, he said he was terrified to talk about the “islamification of this country” which is going ahead at a “frightening pace”. As I listened, I wondered what he was scared of, since it didn’t seem like he was saying anything that would actually get him arrested. It sounded to me like he was saying things that were ridiculous, wrong, and bigoted, and which he’d rightly get pilloried for. But not arrested… unless he was planning to go on to incite violence. And when he said that in his youth saying that sort of thing wasn’t a problem I thought to myself… that’s probably because there were more bigots around when he was young.
While we should rightly be worried about the police (and the courts) reaction to the humour of Paul Chambers and Gareth Compton, it’s also important to make sure people don’t confuse freedom of speech with freedom not to be told you’re talking a load of tosh. Freedom of speech doesn’t mean everything everyone says is correct, and being told you’re full of shit, or that you’re not funny, or that you are funny, don’t constitute violations of free speech.
Freedom of tweet
A couple of days after the twit-storm over the twitter joke trial, a couple of UK newspapers treated us to a vile attack on a civil servant for giving details of her personal life and her differences of opinion with government policy, on twitter and on her blog (I won’t do the papers the service of providing a link but it should be easy enough to find for anyone who is interested). It’s one more in a long line of unprovoked attacks from journalists and even elected politicians on people for doing not much more than nattering. As with the twitter joke trial, the response was a huge show of support on twitter and on personal blogs for the person under attack.
The more I read this sort of frenzied attach, the more I get the impression that a lot of old-school journalists are really quite panicky about online networking and how it is transforming how people talk, how they consume and challenge the news. It’s particularly disturbing when commentators feel it is more worthwhile to use their considerable reach to have a go at individuals for engaging in banter rather than to challenge misguided or bigoted opinions. Banter and bigotry are both allowed, but I know which one I worry about more.