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

Ukip's Nigel Farage and Paul Nuttall. Photo: Getty
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Is the general election 2017 the end of Ukip?

Ukip led the way to Brexit, but now the party is on less than 10 per cent in the polls. 

Ukip could be finished. Ukip has only ever had two MPs, but it held an outside influence on politics: without it, we’d probably never have had the EU referendum. But Brexit has turned Ukip into a single-issue party without an issue. Ukip’s sole remaining MP, Douglas Carswell, left the party in March 2017, and told Sky News’ Adam Boulton that there was “no point” to the party anymore. 

Not everyone in Ukip has given up, though: Nigel Farage told Peston on Sunday that Ukip “will survive”, and current leader Paul Nuttall will be contesting a seat this year. But Ukip is standing in fewer constituencies than last time thanks to a shortage of both money and people. Who benefits if Ukip is finished? It’s likely to be the Tories. 

Is Ukip finished? 

What are Ukip's poll ratings?

Ukip’s poll ratings peaked in June 2016 at 16 per cent. Since the leave campaign’s success, that has steadily declined so that Ukip is going into the 2017 general election on 4 per cent, according to the latest polls. If the polls can be trusted, that’s a serious collapse.

Can Ukip get anymore MPs?

In the 2015 general election Ukip contested nearly every seat and got 13 per cent of the vote, making it the third biggest party (although is only returned one MP). Now Ukip is reportedly struggling to find candidates and could stand in as few as 100 seats. Ukip leader Paul Nuttall will stand in Boston and Skegness, but both ex-leader Nigel Farage and donor Arron Banks have ruled themselves out of running this time.

How many members does Ukip have?

Ukip’s membership declined from 45,994 at the 2015 general election to 39,000 in 2016. That’s a worrying sign for any political party, which relies on grassroots memberships to put in the campaigning legwork.

What does Ukip's decline mean for Labour and the Conservatives? 

The rise of Ukip took votes from both the Conservatives and Labour, with a nationalist message that appealed to disaffected voters from both right and left. But the decline of Ukip only seems to be helping the Conservatives. Stephen Bush has written about how in Wales voting Ukip seems to have been a gateway drug for traditional Labour voters who are now backing the mainstream right; so the voters Ukip took from the Conservatives are reverting to the Conservatives, and the ones they took from Labour are transferring to the Conservatives too.

Ukip might be finished as an electoral force, but its influence on the rest of British politics will be felt for many years yet. 

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