When Tim Berners-Lee appeared at the sublime Olympics opening ceremony, one salient phrase (referring to the web) circled around the 70,000 seats: “THIS IS FOR EVERYONE.” That means the Twitter “trolls” and cretins too.
On July 30th, when Olympic diver Tom Daley marginally missed out on a medal, one such cretin under the Twitter name @Rileyy_69 decided to rile Daley with the hateful message: “You let your dad down i hope you know that.” A disgusting thing to say from a terrible person; but, if we are serious about protecting free speech, he does have the right to say it.
Freedom of speech is an absolute right; it can’t be tossed aside or diluted when somebody says something nasty. Politicians often espouse freedom of speech as a “British virtue” but we have few provisions protecting citizens from arrest if they happen to have disagreeable opinions. Like the internet, freedom of speech is for everyone.
In spite of this, majority opinion won out. The troll, Riley, was first suspended from Twitter and then eventually arrested in Weymouth “on suspicion of malicious communications.” Daley fans and others who saw the comment in terrible taste (rightly so) unfurled their anger into elation at the thought of arrest (not rightly so). Perhaps Louis Walsh’s tweet is emblematic of the consensus: “Retweet this if you are happy that Rileyy_69 got arrested!”
Isn’t arrest somewhat extreme for ugly words? Freedom of speech allows for criticism and debate as well as counter-insults and ad-hominem attacks, but it does not allow for authoritarian intervention – free speech, when properly in place, counteracts a controlling state.
We could learn a great deal from our American cousins. They have the first amendment to the constitution, which ensures freedom of speech. As such, arrests are fewer, cases of slander and libel are less prevalent and the police require a probable cause to make arrests. The law favours the citizens and not the police, regarding both the online dimension and reality.
This first amendment right is what both the British judicial and political systems lack. Riley’s abusive tweet is not the first example of an online comment turning into an arrest. Paul Chambers was arrested in 2010 for tweeting that he may blow up Robin Hood Airport because of their cancellation of flights. He was joking; it was a satirical, slightly childish jibe. Chamber’s last few months have turned nightmarish as he has successfully untangled himself from the UK’s labyrinthine legal system. With the help of celebrity backers (Al Murray and Stephen Fry – good on them) he successfully repealed his fines two and a half years later on July 26, 2012. The authorities shouldn’t have fined him at all, and wouldn’t have if our legislature revered and protected freedom of speech. When an absolute right, e.g. freedom of expression, is denied for one cretinous troll, it can then be denied for other non-malicious people such as Paul Chambers.
Our cold legislation is blind to irony, satire and humour, all of which free expression protects. Protecting these virtues – evoked in the comments of Paul Chambers – is paramount to a free society and yes, we may therefore have to put up with bigots such as Riley rather than arresting them. Likewise, we need to protect the internet and Twitter as a place for free speech, not one more place to fear arrest.