Monday, June 17, 2013

Freedom Of Speech For All Or Freedom Of Speech For None

Deyka Ayan Hassan, the 21 year old student who stupidly tweeted that anyone wearing a Help For Heroes T-shirt deserved to be beheaded in the wake of the murder of soldier Lee Rigby, has been sentenced to 250 hours community service. She’d gone to the police herself after receiving hundreds of abusive Tweets in response to her own threatening to kill her, rape her and burn down her home.

The facts of the matter are simple enough but my gut response to it isn’t.

The whole thing makes me uncomfortable.

Morally the standpoint of the authorities and those who participated in the original Twitter exchange is on ropey ground. It is either a criminal offense to post / write / utter an abusive Tweet / comment / joke or it isn’t. And if it is what the hell has happened to the idea of freedom of speech?

Freedom of speech is something we very rarely think about these days. I possibly only think about it so much because I am a writer. For most of us it is like the air we breathe. We take it for granted because we mistakenly believe it has always been there and will always been there. It is part of this country’s genetic make-up.

It isn’t and never has been. It is a right that was hard won by our forebears and a right that is now slowly being wrested away from us under the guise of common decency; under the guise of protecting us and responding to our sense of outrage, disgust and, ironically, our sense of justice and morality.

Yes, Deyka Ayan Hassan’s Tweet was stupid and reprehensible. A joke that backfired and wasn’t really funny in the first place. The audience for gross shock-jokes is thin at best and very choosy even when it is at large – just ask Frankie Boyle. But are we really going to arrest people for making poor quality poor taste jokes? What common good would that serve? Protecting the rest of us from our own sense of anger and sense of disgust? Excuse me, but I don’t want Mr Cameron and the law courts inserting themselves so intimately into my sensibilities, thank you very much! I’m quite happy to process my own anger and deal with my own indignation. I just want to be protected from would-be murderers, thieves and rapists (and immoral politicians and non-tax paying corporations). I can deal with crap comedians myself.

Of course, in an ideal world everyone would always say nice things about each other. We wouldn’t have hate preachers, or racists or inflammatory orators. We’d all quote Wordsworth all day long and be utterly bored witless.

This isn’t an ideal world. But having the right to freedom of speech makes it not quite as un-ideal as it could be. We can mock our politicians. Satirize those in power over us. Challenge the law and the state when they behave ridiculously and fail to serve us, the people, as they’re supposed to. That is our TRUE protection. But freedom of speech also means that other people can disrespect us, our favourite band, our hobbies, our beliefs and our country itself. They also have the right to make disgusting jokes and be verbally offensive and utter absolutely any old crap that comes out of their mouths. There is no halfway house in this folks. We either can all say what we like or we can’t.

And it would be a much darker world if we couldn’t.

I’m thinking Hitler. I’m thinking Stasi. I’m thinking police state.

The most disturbing thing though about the Deyka Ayan Hassan case is the lack of consistency. Why were those threatening her with murder and rape - far more personally offensive attacks (with no chance of any of it being “a joke”) – not also condemned to community service? Why were they allowed to be abusive and Deyka Ayan Hassan not?

Because in this case the weight of public outrage was on their side?

Well, who decides how far and exactly when that particular pendulum has swung?

Because it certainly isn’t you and it certainly isn’t me.

Is freedom of speech now dependent on the opinions of the majority? Or just those that are in power over us? Do we now need someone else’s permission and approval to divine if what we want to say is in line with our peers and therefore acceptable to say?

When that happens freedom of speech isn’t worth the paper (or blog) that it’s written on.

And that is a true abuse.

22 comments:

Nota Bene said...

What a tricky topic these days. Once upon a time her comment would have been heard by six people, and if one of them happened to be the local bobby, she'd have been given a firm talking to, would never have done it again, and that would be the end of it. The difficulty now is that such a silly utterance is likely to provoke a disturbance having been seen by thousands. So the authorities have to react, but don't really have the right tools to do so. It's also true of the people that responded to her provocation...they all need a slap round the back of the legs...but there's no way of doing that in this connected world. Perhaps they should all be disconnected from the internet for a period...but that gets us all into a whole new and very uncomfortable territory...

Steve said...

Nota Bene: and yet the only people who would have originally seen her Tweet would have been her own followers. Numbers of them must have re-tweeted it in order to escalate the situation and the outrage. They are also culpable. Maybe, as a species, we are just not ready for the heady responsibilities of social networking?

libby said...

I agree with you Steve...and also the response from NB...and social networking is the beast out of the basket really now and can't ever be put away I suppose.

Steve said...

Libby: Facebook is the beast of the Apocalypse. Twitter is a naughty imp.

Craig said...

I'm with you. I steer very clear of the big F and the big T for many reasons, but mostly because they are inane. But just sometimes, they are treacherous, as in this case.
You're quite right, although her comments were ridiculous rather than evil, the comments of those who hounded her were evil, pure and simple.

Gorilla Bananas said...

Mel Gibson threatened to burn his girlfriend's house down for not giving him a blow job and nothing happened to him. The law is an ass without any tits.

Steve said...

Craig: any individual can make a mistake but it takes a mob to turn justice into a kangaroo court.

Gorilla Bananas: sexualizing the law just makes me even more uncomfortable. As for Mel's Gibson's girlfriend... I'd've plumped for having my house burnt down personally.

John Gray said...

If the tweet was destined for a few people only...I count that as a private conversation....
If the words are on a blog.....then it's public and therefore fair game for the authorities

That's what I think

Kellie @ Delightfully Ludicrous said...

Ooh, sticky moral point. Those are always hard ones to navigate.

Steve said...

John: as I said to Nota Bene above... the original tweet would only have been seen by her followers... some of them must have then spread it further afield. The lack of control on Twitter is what is at the heart of this. As for blogging... gulp!

Kellie: shark infested waters too...

Mark In Mayenne said...

Was it a jury trial? It's about time some sensible juries put a stop to this nonsense.

Steve said...

Mark: I have no idea in truth but this was such an emotional case I would think any jury would have been hard pressed to retain their objectivity.

the fly in the web said...

From what I remember juries are pretty objective...that's why our masters don't like them.

Steve said...

The fly in the web: trouble is, judge and jury these days, all use Twitter...

Marginalia said...

Dis my favourite band. No way man! Anyone who messes with the Joe Loss Band is askin' for a bunch of fives and no mistake.

Deyka was an idiot - she probably realised that after the first few abusive tweets she received. She's probably cancelled her Twitter account and closed her Facebook page if she has one.

I'm in two minds about whether the authorities should have got involved. On the one hand I'd have thought this could have been dealt with at the local police station, with a serious chat about how offensive were her comments etc. However, I don't think people should go around saying what she said for loads of reasons. And there are loads of other stupid people like Deyka tweeting away - me for example. She and others who may have thought to have copied her actions need to know that in general society does not approve of such comments, finds them offensive, thoughtless and possibly down right dangerous.

The default should be free speech "published and be damned", but in this case I feel society has a duty to censure those who it feels go too far.

Steve said...

Marginalia: I think society did and has censured her... thus making an appearance in criminal court wholly unnecessary and more to do with politics than justice.

Marginalia said...

Dear Steve, me thinks you see conspiracy around every corner.

Steve said...

Marginalia: why? Who have you been talking to and what did they tell you?

Wanderlust said...

I was not aware of this incident, just read about it here for the first time. But it seems pretty silly to me. Why does this one person get charged with community service, yet those who made threats back to her get off scot free?Where is the justice in that? I don't agree with abusive tweets and comments like hers, but the thing about Twitter is that it enacts its own form of justice, as many have found out the hard way.

Steve said...

Wanderlust: exactly! I couldn't have put it better myself (and, in fact, plainly didn't)!

y.s.s. said...

Good post on a subject guaranteed to give good pub fights.
Freedom of speech has always been limited. In the UK our right to freedom of speech was well-recognised by common law but is now found in Article 10 of the ECHR (incorporated in UK law by the Human Rights Act - that well-known and well-hated Aunt Sally of the right-wing darlings). Even in a tolerant democratic society, freedom of 'expression' comes with conditions attached - and needs to. Article 10 provides for those circumstances where the freedom may be limited to achieve specific aims - e.g. national security; protection of health and morals; the protection of other 'rights'. So where speech incites to violence there has to be action to limit the freedom. The difficulty comes when the definition and therefore the parameters of those limiting conditions are construed so strictly (and are subject to political interference) that we have the ludicrous situation where a joke (albeit in bad taste) results in prosecution of the joker. Think of Paul Chambers' stupid 'Nottingham Airport Bomb' Tweet - the one that resulted in him being found guilty and fined (plus costs).
I also remember the stooshie that blew up when the BNP were invited onto Question Time - and to my mind that stooshie represented all that is wrong with a society that believes it can limit the freedom of expression simply by labelling a view 'odious'. (Of course the BNP are odious - but that simply increases the need to expose their odious and ludicrous views and opinions to the light of day thus revealing them for the rubbish that they are.)
Twitter is not private. Blogs are not private. Not even those blogs which are by invitation only. The law has been quite clear about that.

Steve said...

y.s.s. should you ever deign to challenge me to a pub fight I shall concede without a blow being struck. You are both erudite and informative... I can admit when I am totally outmatched.