The Prime Minister is concerned that Leveson’s “essential” legislative underpinning for press self-regulation would cross a line. “We should be wary of any legislation that has the potential to infringe free speech and a free press”, he stated, saying that we should be proud of our “great tradition” of freedom of speech. But the UK has many laws that restrict citizens’ free expression and which we should be deeply ashamed of. Will the PM be campaigning to end these?
There’s ‘Section 5’, under which – for example – a 16 year old was summoned to court for holding a placard saying, “Scientology is not a religion. It is a dangerous cult.” Thankfully, after pressure from MPs and the Reform Section 5 campaign, the Home Office consulted on the law and – separately – the Lords will tomorrow vote on amending it. Reformists (including the Deputy Prime Minister) can presumably count on the PM’s support!
Readers may agree with the above Scientology comment, but free speech depends on people defending things that they would never themselves say. A recent string of convictions for offensive communications has covered comments about dead policewomen (scrawled on a t-shirt), a Facebook post about dead soldiers, and jokes about missing girl April Jones. I hope I’m not breaking any laws on offence by saying that these were clearly horrible and idiotic responses to truly awful events. But should we be sending people to prison for them? Should some jokes be illegal?
Worse, a man was arrested last month after posting a picture of a burning remembrance poppy on Facebook. It’s staggering that sharing such an image could lead to a knock on the door and time in a cell. (On this, let me point to the three Lib Dem MPs who in 2006 supported making it illegal to burn the Union Flag: John Leech, Bob Russell and Mark Williams!)
Credible threats and sustained harassment should of course be investigated, and context is important, but there should be no right “not to be offended”. This last point is especially important in the age of the internet. Jokes that might previously have been kept within the home or the classroom now become instantly accessible matters of public record. Drunk students find themselves the subjects of national attention. Must things said online avoid offending anyone in the country, or even the entire world?
If anything, the community processes of ostracism, which should be preferable to calling the police, are easier online. Ignoring and ‘unfriending’ are given their own buttons! And, for better or worse, social media operate within private sites that have their own regulations and reporting systems for dealing with objectionable content, further reducing the need for police involvement.
The Crown Prosecution Service are devising guidelines on the treatment of such online communications. The Director of Public Prosecutions has said “the time has come for an informed debate about the boundaries of free speech in an age of social media.” While these guidelines may – if we’re lucky – be an improvement, there are plenty of laws that simply must be changed, for both online and offline communications.
If the government is really concerned about freedom – supposedly one of its three core values – it should follow Lib Dem policy and introduce a second Freedom Bill. This should include reform of these communications and public order laws, as well as those on obscene publications and the activities of consenting adults (and how about the rules sheltering parliamentary footage – including Cameron’s defence of a free press! – from satire?). The PM should be more concerned about laws that currently drag regular Brits through our courts and prisons than about opposing short legislation to encourage self-regulation of powerful newspapers.
* Adam Corlett is an economics researcher at CentreForum, the liberal think tank, and vice-chair of the Liberal Democrats for Drug Policy Reform.