Social media prosecutions threaten free speech in the UK - and beyond

Traditions like Speakers' Corner protect free speech on the street, so why can't we do it on the internet?

Visitors to Hyde Park on a Sunday can see people standing on stepladders engaged in passionate debate with groups clustered around them. Speakers’ Corner is a symbol of Britain’s centuries old commitment to freedom of speech.

When it comes to free speech on the internet, however, Britain seems to have lost its way. Recent prosecutions for material posted on social media sites and internet forums raise troubling questions about the state of the law and limits of free expression. These prosecutions are causing dismay not just in the UK but among those battling internet censorship around the globe.

This week alone, a 19-year-old man was sentenced to 12 weeks in a young offenders’ institution after posting comments, some sexual, about two girls who are missing and presumed dead. A 20-year old man was sentenced to 240 hours of community service for posting comments about dead soldiers on his Facebook page. 

In March, a 21-year old man was sentenced to 56 days in prison for racist comments on Twitter about a seriously ill black footballer. In August, a 26-year old man was given a two-year suspended sentence and community service after posting racial insults on the website of Liverpool football club. 

It should be well-established that freedom of expression includes the freedom to shock, offend or disturb. Yet with the amplifying effect and legal novelty of social media, that basic truth is too often overlooked.
Even in cases involving incitement to violence, there are questions about whether the response of the authorities has been proportionate. Police arrested a 17-year-old boy in August for death threats on Twitter against a British Olympic swimmer, and cautioned rather than charging him. But four-year sentences for two men for incitement during the August 2011 riots were upheld by the Court of Appeal later that year, despite the lack of evidence that anyone was actually incited to  riot as a result.

There is a growing recognition in Britain that these trends threaten free expression. In July, a panel of High Court judges, including the head of the judiciary, quashed the 2010 conviction of a 27-year old man – and the £1,000 fine - for a tweet in which he jokingly threatened to blow up a local airport because of his frustration that it was closed because of bad weather. The ruling in what social media referred to as “Twitter Joke Trial” quoted Shakespeare for emphasis: “They are free to speak not what they ought to say, but what they feel.”  But the ruling appears not to have deterred prosecutors and the lower courts from pursuing similar cases.

The top prosecutor in England and Wales, Kier Starmer, has said he is concerned about the potential chilling effect arising from prosecutions for offensive speech and this week began consultations with lawyers, police, free expression groups and social media companies, as part of a review of guidelines for such prosecutions.
Part of the problem is that the laws in place were designed for a different era. The offence the two men were prosecuted for this week – grossly offensive electronic communication – is part of the Communications Act 2003, passed when social media were in their infancy and Twitter and Facebook, which can quickly transform private thoughts into mass communication, did not exist.  The offense dates back even earlier, though, to the 1930s and was designed to protect telephone operators.

The Director of Public Prosecutions will hopefully bring some much-needed restraint to the social media prosecutions, helping to delineate distinctions between material that is merely offensive, however so, and material that is part of a campaign of harassment, credible threat or clear incitement to violence. Prosecutors already have a duty to ensure that any prosecution is in the public interest and to protect free expression  -- a right given particular emphasis in the domestic Human Rights Act. 

Law magistrates and professional judges also need clearer guidance about the importance of free expression in a democratic society. But ultimately a change to the law is likely to be required to ensure that free speech is protected.

Hyde Park has long been famous. It must be puzzling and discouraging to people in less democratic countries who look to the UK as a model to see people here being sent to jail for speaking their minds.  But with the right approach, Britain could do the same for speech on the internet as Speaker’s Corner did for speech on the streets.

Benjamin Ward is deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia Division at Human Rights Watch.
 

Communist MP Saklatvala Shapurji holding forth at Speakers' Corner in 1933. Photograph: Getty Images

 

Benjamin Ward is deputy director in Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia division

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The struggles of Huma Abedin

On the behind-the-scenes story of Hillary Clinton’s closest aide.

In a dreary campaign, it was a moment that shone: Hillary Clinton, on the road to the caucus in Iowa, stopping at a Mexican fast-food restaurant to eat and somehow passing unrecognised. Americans of all political persuasions gleefully speculated over what her order – a chicken burrito bowl with guacamole – revealed about her frame of mind, while supporters gloated that the grainy security-camera footage seemed to show Clinton with her wallet out, paying for her own lunch. Here was not the former first lady, senator and secretary of state, known to people all over the world. This was someone’s unassuming grandmother, getting some food with her colleagues.

It might be unheard of for Clinton to go unrecognised but, for the woman next to her at the till, blending into the background is part of the job. Huma Abedin, often referred to as Clinton’s “shadow” by the US media, is now the vice-chair of her presidential campaign. She was Clinton’s deputy chief of staff at the state department and has been a personal aide since the late 1990s.

Abedin first met Clinton in 1996 when she was 19 and an intern at the White House, assigned to the first lady’s office. She was born in Michigan in 1976 to an Indian father and a Pakistani mother. When Abedin was two, they moved from the US to Saudi Arabia. She returned when she was 18 to study at George Washington University in Washington, DC. Her father was an Islamic scholar who specialised in interfaith reconciliation – he died when she was 17 – and her mother is a professor of sociology.

While the role of “political body woman” may once have been a kind of modern maid, there to provide a close physical presence and to juggle the luggage and logistics, this is no longer the case. During almost 20 years at Clinton’s side, Abedin has advised her boss on everything from how to set up a fax machine – “Just pick up the phone and hang it up. And leave it hung up” – to policy on the Middle East. When thousands of Clinton’s emails were made public (because she had used a private, rather than a government, server for official communication), we glimpsed just how close they are. In an email from 2009, Clinton tells her aide: “Just knock on the door to the bedroom if it’s closed.”

Abedin shares something else with Clinton, outside of their professional ties. They are both political wives who have weathered their husbands’ scandals. In what felt like a Lewinsky affair for the digital age, in 2011, Abedin’s congressman husband, Anthony Weiner, resigned from office after it emerged that he had shared pictures of his genitals with strangers on social media. A second similar scandal then destroyed his attempt to be elected mayor of New York in 2013. In an ironic twist, it was Bill Clinton who officiated at Abedin’s and Weiner’s wedding in 2010. At the time, Hillary is reported to have said: “I have one daughter. But if I had a second daughter, it would [be] Huma.” Like her boss, Abedin stood by her husband and now Weiner is a house husband, caring for their four-year-old son, Jordan, while his wife is on the road.

Ellie Foreman-Peck

A documentary filmed during Weiner’s abortive mayoral campaign has just been released in the US. Weiner shows Abedin at her husband’s side, curtailing his more chaotic tendencies, always flawless with her red lipstick in place. Speaking to the New York Observer in 2007, three years before their marriage, Weiner said of his future wife: “This notion that Senator Clinton is a cool customer – I mean, I don’t dispute it, but the coolest customer in that whole operation is Huma . . . In fact, I think there’s some dispute as to whether Huma’s actually human.” In the film, watching her preternatural calm under extraordinary pressure, you can see what he means.

In recent months, Abedin’s role has changed. She is still to be found at Clinton’s side – as the burrito photo showed – but she is gradually taking a more visible role in the organisation overall, as they pivot away from the primaries to focus on the national race. She meets with potential donors and endorsers on Clinton’s behalf and sets strategy. When a running mate is chosen, you can be sure that Abedin will have had her say on who it is. There’s a grim symmetry to the way politics looks in the US now: on one side, the Republican candidate Donald Trump is calling for a ban on Muslims entering the country; on the other, the presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton relies ever more on her long-time Muslim-American staffer.

Years before Trump, notable Republicans were trying to make unpleasant capital out of Abedin’s background. In 2012, Tea Party supporters alleged that she was linked to the Muslim Brotherhood and its attempt to gain access “to top Obama officials”. In her rare interviews, Abedin has spoken of how hurtful these baseless statements were to her family – her mother still lives in Saudi Arabia. Later, the senator and former Republican presidential candidate John McCain spoke up for her, saying that Abedin represented “what is best about America”.

Whether senior figures in his party would do the same now remains to be seen.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad