Stuart Waiton: Online freedom a messy business

IT’S a strange thing that we British, or Scottish, tend to have a sense of pride about freedoms that are available in our country, such as the freedom of speech. Strange because there is no freedom of speech here, and we are becoming more unfree every year.

2013 has shown that online freedom of speech is far from absolute, writes Stuart Waiton. Picture: TSPL

By the end of the year we have just said goodbye to, the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Act that was passed in 2012 was being reviewed to assess its success or failure; the Irish Republican football fan group, the Green Brigade, was being broken up by Celtic Football Club, in large part because of its political protests at the club’s stadium, and Lord Advocate Frank Mulholland was instructing prosecutors to take a hard line against online “hate comments” about the Clutha Bar helicopter crash.

Many people don’t like the behaviour of football fans, fewer still are supporters of the Green Brigade, and almost nobody would support idiots spouting insulting rubbish on Facebook about the victims of the Clutha crash. But the point about free speech is that it is exactly the people you dislike whose free speech you need to defend the most.

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For Voltaire, the point of being tolerant was to defend to the death the right of people to say things you hate. George Orwell’s point was that if liberty means anything it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear. “Dissent,” Thomas Jefferson said, “is the highest form of patriotism”, while his compatriot George Washington argued that “if free speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter”. Looking back over the last year in the UK, the slaughterhouse doors appear to have been blown off their hinges.

At the start of the year, co-leader of the English Defence League Kevin Carroll was arrested for denouncing Muslims’ “backward” savagery in their ritual slaughter of cattle. This offensive Facebook rant aimed at a religious group was targeted by the police for being “racist”, action that was celebrated by many left-wing people on Twitter. Later in the year, in Edinburgh, Ukip leader Nigel Farage was also to feel the wrath of the “tolerant”, being driven off the streets into a nearby pub for being an “English racist”.

Earlier, in 2012, Lord Leveson had told the education minister and ex-journalist Michael Gove that “I don’t need any lessons in freedom of speech, Mr Gove, really I don’t”, before proposing new regulations to undermine further press freedom in Britain.

On the Leveson panel sat director of Liberty Shami Chakrabarti, cheering on the unelected judge and the new state regulations of the press.

In an ironic twist barely mentioned in the press itself, more police officers were used to target phone-hacking journalists, especially those who were thought to have hacked Milly Dowler’s phone, than actually investigated her murder. Dawn raids on family homes and the arrest of 22 Sun journalists led one to comment that “if this happened in China, there’d be a s***-storm here”. But then, they are only tabloid journalists, so we freedom-loving Brits don’t really care about their freedom.

In April last year, radicals and feminists of the National Union of Students proposed a motion to end “lad culture” at universities, saying that a zero-tolerance approach to Page 3 and laddish promotional material by sports clubs was needed to create a “safer, more positive, more empowering culture on our campuses”. As the year progressed, we the public were to be protected not only at universities but also while shopping, as a campaign kicked off to ban lads’ mags from supermarkets.

In June, the anti-fascist organisation Hope not Hate, which at the start of the year had changed its policy and argued that “No Platform” bans on reactionary speakers were not helpful, reverted back to type and campaigned for two American right-wing bloggers, Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer, to be barred from entering the country. Under the auspices of “hate”, once again only people who speak right-thinking things, it seems, should even be allowed into our land of freedom.

The silly season continued with 39-year-old Shaun Reah, from my mother’s home town of South Shields, being arrested for having a tattoo of a cartoon mosque being blown up. The fashion police had spoken.

Twitter, Facebook, football fans, bloggers and many other “commentators” increasingly faced arrest, charges and even imprisonment for words spoken or written this year. The list goes on and on, but two specific things appear to drive these various censors.

One is a lack of trust in the listener/viewer: the person who will hear or see these various forms of speech/writing or even a tattoo – a viewer who is often assumed to be on the verge of becoming part of a bigoted mob. The second is a growing belief that we are all vulnerable (some groups, as George Orwell might have said, being more vulnerable than others) and need to be protected (empowered) from offensive words. Sadly, it is ex-radicals who are often at the forefront of this anti-freedom movement.

Perhaps the best way to think about freedom of speech is to recognise that it is not an angelic pure thing. Indeed, in practice it is a dirty, messy, somewhat chaotic aspect of life, the results of which can never be certain. But that is why it is called freedom.

• Stuart Waiton is author of Snobs’ Law: Criminalising Football Fans in an Age of Intolerance