Tuesday, 17 April 2012

How Much Freedom Of Speech Do We Have? Five Points To Ponder

I came across a story today that shocked me to the core: a blogger by the name of Olly Cromwell, has today been found guilty under Section 127 of the Telecommunications Act 2003 of making a grossly offensive and menacing comment on Twitter. He used the C-word to describe a councillor at Bexleyheath he is annoyed with. Okay, fine, but is it such a big deal to swear online or should we be alarmed?

The man has an e-gob like a sewer. His blog is full of effing and blinding and he doesn't pull his punches, but he says himself,

... if you go through this blog, you will see this prosecution is not about me swearing. It’s about a bigger issue than that, it’s about how your taxes and such like are being abused by local councils. They have free reign with the money they take from you with force. (Try not paying taxes).

I will at a later date publish a proper timeline of all that’s happened since March of last year. Yes this has been going on for over a year now. It’s not just something that’s happened out of the blue. - Ollie Cromwell

That's not the point. He made critical comments about certain council officials in which he excoriated them for malfeasance and called them out for the corruption he perceived. He didn't get into trouble so much for swearing as for accusing the council's officials of misconduct and publishing his opinions in his blog in a particularly vulgar and insulting way. Click the links (warning: not safe for work) and see for yourself if he should have gone to prison for it. Yes, they locked him up for a criminal offence but what is menacing about posting a picture with an offensive word written on it? Insulting? Yes. Offensive? You betcha. Criminal? Hell, no.

1. The price of free speech

Is speech really free when we have to watch what we say in case someone gets their knickers in a twist over criticism or  a bit of swearing? The price of free speech is the extent we're willing to go to in order to defend it, to paraphrase a copyright troll shill. Ooh, I just used some offensive language there! Bit o' name-calling. Naughty, naughty. But it's not swearing and I've named no names. It's not specific enough to get me into trouble.

Okay, suppose I did name a name? I've made disparaging comments about Chris Dodd of the MPAA because I've read transcripts of comments he's made and found them to be nonsensical at best, mendacious at worst. Would this get me into trouble even though I haven't used swear-words to describe him? Do multi-syllabilic words get you off the hook?

DH Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover is choc full of swear words and graphic depictions of Lady C's shenanigans with Mellors the gamekeeper and was actually banned as obscene. These days it's considered a classic. Would Ollie have been prosecuted if he'd put some imagery, similies, or onomatopoeia into his blog posts? The point is, if the ban was in force today, it would be challenged under freedom of speech laws.

Consider the case of Lord Ahmed, who has reportedly been suspended from the Labour Party for making the comment, "If the US can announce a reward of $10 million for the (capture) of Hafiz Saeed, I can announce a bounty of £10 million (for the capture of) President Obama and his predecessor, George Bush." Be careful what you say online. It can get you into trouble, even if it's just a throwaway remark.

2. Think of the children audience

There has been a general trend towards the devaluation of language such that swearing and vulgarity have become more acceptable even if it's not considered professional behaviour. The result is increasingly brutish behaviour, a growing sense of entitlement and social unrest despite the advent of the welfare state. We've never had it so good but can't stop whingeing nonetheless because we've got indoor toilets in subsidized housing now but damn it, we want Playstations, too.

Bear with me. What I'm trying to get across here is the fact that, whether you like it or not, having a potty mouth demonstrates contempt for society because (if this describes you) it means you have no consideration about whether or not your speech or behaviour might offend other people. Indeed, many of the foul-mouthed people I know derive a certain degree of satisfaction from the knowledge that they've caused some discomfort to authority figures. The trouble with causing offence to get attention is that sooner or later you will get attention. What sort of attention do you want to get? That depends on what you do to get it.

Now consider how you can go about getting the widest possible audience without either getting into trouble or alienating too many people. Vulgarity might not be your best option if you want mainstream support.

3. Live and let live

Liam Stacey was arrested. On Tuesday, after pleading guilty to racially aggravated harassment, he was jailed for 56 days. That’s a pretty stiff sentence for being a moron. - Allison Pearson, the Telegraph

Having been targeted by trolls myself, I can't help but agree with Ms. Pearson. However, Michael Masnick of Techdirt took a different approach:

I recognize that the US tends to value "freedom of speech" more than most European countries, and I also recognize that racist hate speech is pretty despicable, but I have to admit that the reports out of the UK of a guy being put in jail for 56 days for a bunch of obnoxious tweets are still really troubling... No doubt, Stacey appears to be an obnoxious, ignorant lout. But there are lots of obnoxious ignorant louts out there, and we don't just put them in jail... Putting people in jail for speech, even if it's obnoxious, creates a massive chilling effect.

I disagree because sometimes the "more speech" is more trolls and their misguided supporters joining in a witch hunt. Where was the speech for Christos Catsouras that would have owned the trolls and griefers who have driven him and his family off the internet? What about Brittan Heller or Heidi Iravani? Those cases were badly handled, I agree, but they wouldn't have blown up the way they did if they'd happened over here because our laws here in the UK are weighted in favour of the victim. In the US, it seems to be a Darwinian affair in which the noisiest, most obnoxious people survive and the weakest have to start all over again. That said, Stacey's troll comments got him enough opprobrium and weren't sent directly to the family so I suppose the sentence was a bit harsh. Mind you, as Ms. Pearson pointed out, he didnt look so badass sobbing in the dock when the jury failed to fall for his "I wuz hacked" story, did he? Lesson learned: make an effort to avoid being overly obnoxious. In the UK you can go to jail for it and they're trying to do the same in Ariziona.

4. Proof or it didn't happen

The trouble with bloggers is they're so opinionated! I should know, I am one, and yes, I am opinionated. I had a difference of opinion with a man I am convinced is a troll yesterday and the way he dismissed me as if swatting a gnat because I disagreed with him really got my back up. It's advisable to get some backup before getting into an argument or online discussion. This means links, pictures or videos. I believe I have demonstrated there and on other threads my ability to think for myself without being led by the nose like a cow on market day and I did so by quoting and linking to the relevant articles. If you're going to call anyone out, post an opinion piece, or report on the internet news, use images, links, quotes, and videos as required to back up your assertions otherwise you will be taken to task by people who know better. I've called BS on people often enough and was armed with the evidence when I did it. It's embarrassing to have it done to you so check your sources... says the blogger who fell for an April Fool's post on patent law. I know!

5. Don't copy, create

While IP law enforcement can have a chilling effect on innovation in blogging, plagiarism is a problem. Consider once again the case of Judith Griggs V Monica Gaudio. To cut a long story short, Griggs lifted Gaudio's article and reprinted it in her online magazine without permission. Result: one internet firestorm. Whose freedom of speech was threatened the most? Both of the women got to tell their story, but the victim won when the rather narcissistic response from Griggs was posted on Facebook and the internet mob went postal on her.

When I write articles I quote a bit from relevant posts, but mostly I link to them in order to avoid getting into trouble. Does it have a chilling effect? Well it forces me to be original and avoid being lazy. This is a good thing.

Given that you can be accused of infringing just for embedding or linking to a video, it's important to use as much original material as possible. Most of the time you can get away with embedding or linking to news videos. Musical ones might cause problems for you. IP law needs to be reformed but until then we need to be careful.


We have freedom of speech in the UK that allows us to criticise the powers that be and each other. I've been using it to castigate our politicians for permitting overreaching laws to be proposed and enacted. I've also heavily criticized the US politicians involved and even sent emails and posted on their social media accounts calling for IP reform, fairness, and digital rights for all. I doubt I will be sent to prison for it because I'm being reasonable and citing my sources. It's when we cross the line and become unreasonable that the long arm of the law feels our collars. In the end Mike Masnick may be right: our "right" to be a jerk online is under threat. I'm not really sure if that's completely bad or not, but it does give me cause for concern.

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