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Opinion

Free Speech At A Price

by | Saturday, 25th October 2014

Earlier this week a man was sentenced to jail for sending an offensive tweet to labour MP Luciana Berger. This nudge focuses on freedom of speech and the various pieces of legislation and events that have been used to erode that most important right. It is a fundamental principal of a 'democracy' that people be allowed to express their opinion, but there is also a thin line between a person's right to free speech and a person's right to a peaceful life, free from threats or harm.

In this weeks story it was reported that Garron Helm published an opinion of Miss Berger which the Labour MP took offence to. As a result, Helm was sentenced to 4 weeks in prison. His crime was to publish a picture of Miss Berger with a 'Holocaust' star of David on her forehead with the hashtag, 'Hitler was right'. In another tweet he accused her of being a 'Communist Jewess', and further proclaimed that, 'You can always trust a Jew to show their true colours eventually.'

Whilst his comments could well be deemed as offensive, it should also be considered that, by becoming a Member of Parliament Miss Berger has chosen to make herself a public figure and therefore must accept harsh words and criticism, even from the most extreme of our society (the people she serves) as an occupational hazard; even if those opinions are unfounded. That does not mean that people have a right to abuse politicians verbally, however, the proper cause of action for a public servant in her position would have been to exercise discretion and ignore the comment, or ask for a written apology (which Helm has since submitted). 

Another worrying outcome of this case was that on the back of Helm's comments the police were able to search his home. Let's just think about that for a moment: he made no threat of violence, that we have been made aware of, and, yet, because someone took offence to his comment, the police were able to go into his home and search through his property. Having searched his property the police found Nazi memorabilia, painting an almost perfect picture of someone who deserves what he got. You almost couldn't write this stuff. The character that the media has been able to create is of a troubled loner who supports, what most people consider to have been, the most evil regime to have existed. To sympathise with the Nazi sympathiser is to condone evil, as it is perceived in society, and so very few people will publicly oppose his detention.

This story is not just about the offensive comment of a Nazi sympathiser to a jewish Politician, nor is it just about racism or religion, as other commentators might suggest. The most important aspect of this story is the implication it has on free speech. If the 'Helm model' and others cases like this are to be followed, a person may one day be arrested for just about anything that causes an offence. 

Coincidentally, the Berger-Helm case just so happens to conclude around the time that Chris Grayling has announced that the Government is to create stiffer penalties for internet trolling. The new legislation, that will make an amendment to the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill, has been dubbed 'Chloe's law' following the case of Chloe Madely, daughter of Richard Madely and Judy Finnigan, who received rape threats via the internet following her Mother's comments on Loose women. Her comments were regarding another media driven case involving ex-Sheffield United Footballer Ched Evans, who was convicted of rape.

Whilst verbal abuse and rape are both offensive and abhorrent, we should take time to consider why these high profile / media driven cases have just so happened to be spread across the media at a precise time when the Government is focussing on internet trolling; or is it that these cases have enabled the type of discussion the Government needed to make the changes to the Criminal justice and Courts Bill they desired.

When we look back over the years we can see other events that have lead up to this. Earlier this year there was another high profile case of internet trolling involving Brenda Leyland, who posted abusive comments aimed at Kate and Gerry McCann. Mrs Leyland was later found dead in a hotel room after being confronted by a SkyNews reporter. If we didn't know what 'trolling' was before that, we certainly did after the media attention that followed. 

Leyland's comments would have been perceived by most as being deeply offensive and may have even gone beyond the right to freedom of speech, causing severe mental stress to the McCanns. However, we already have laws and courts to deal with matters like these, and so there should be no need to add or create extra legislation.

In July last year police issued a harassment warning to a teenager in Weymouth after he posted a tweet about Tom Daley, stating that the swimmer had let down his late father by finishing fourth in an Olympic event. The tweet was certainly insensitive and no doubt posted in frustration, however it was not threatening and was not made as a direct attack on Daley himself. The teenager was essentially reprimanded  for having an opinion, all be it a controversial one.

The important thing to note in these cases is that they have brought internet trolling into the forum of discussion and presented people with a problem. Following the the public's reaction, who are quite rightly disgusted by some of these comments, the Government are now implementing Chloe's law - the solution. We are yet to see quite how this piece of legislation will be used.

In another incident, that occurred in 2012, a man from Greater Manchester was sentenced to four months in jail for wearing a t-shirt with the words 'One Less Pig. Perfect Justice'. He wore the t-shirt at a time when two police constables, Fiona Bone and Nicola Hughes, had been killed during a gun attack in the city. The t-shirt was certainly in bad taste and could be seen as inciting or condoning violence, though no more than other t-shirts we might see at political rallies or marches. However, as offensive as they maybe, they are forms of expression; in this case frustration and disgust, presumably with a rising police state. In a world that hangs on the edge of morality it is important to be able to express frustration and disgust, for without that right we cannot oppose disgusting actions of institutions, corporations or governments without fear of reprimand. Where will our freedom of speech be then? If we follow that line of thinking, we arrive at a world where we may get arrested for expressing disgust at our MPs, or even criticising their policies in a way that they deem offensive.

This is not the first time that members of the government have tried to legislate for political correctness. Readers may recall that in January this year the Government proposed that AntiSocial Behaviour Orders (ASBOs) be replaced by Injunctions to Prevent Nuisance and Annoyance (IPNAs). IPNAs would allow for injunctions against anyone aged 10 or older who "has engaged or threatens to engage in conduct capable of causing nuisance or annoyance to any person". Whilst the Bill continued on through the stages, this aspect of the Antisocial Behaviour Crime and Policing Bill was omitted - and for good reason. "It is difficult to imagine a broader concept than causing 'nuisance' or 'annoyance'. The phrase is apt to catch a vast range of everyday behaviours to an extent that may have serious implications for the rule of law," said Lord Macdonald, in response to the bill.

His words were as relevant then as they are now. The phrase or term 'annoyance' is indeed very apt at catching a vast range of everyday behaviours, and that is the intention. The Government may have failed to legislate for this in the Antisocial Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill, but now they have latched onto internet trolls in a bid to target behaviours that we all find annoying. Their hope is that we will not resist any rule or regulation that removes a person's right to these sorts of opinions; all be they offensive ones. There are many opinions that we all find offensive. Who deems which ones should be politically corrected?

The definition of Political Correctness is to conform to a belief that language and practices which could offend should be eliminated. Political correctness is in fact the annihilation of words and phrases; it seeks to mould the way we think by making us self conscious - in this case self conscious of our own opinions. Much like the issues discussed last week, regarding smoking, opinions that do not conform to certain political views will be slowly nudged out of existence. For now the Government will focus on those groups of people, the loners and small groups, that the rest of us will find distasteful and do little to protect. But when those opinions have been politically corrected, whose will be corrected next?

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