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Condemning “managed anorexia”

What are the limits of free speech?

Sarah Tonner has written a moving and measured piece on the Guardian's website about the issues of free speech and irresponsible promotion of anorexia. She argues that the harm that may be caused by such a campaign is such that it should be prohibited. She concludes of the person behind the campaign:

If [the] tweets risk encouraging anorexia and causing harm, this should be addressed. By exercising his "liberty" to say whatever he likes, he risks infringing the liberties of others who read his words – those with a mental illness who have no control over the effect his words might have on their minds.

However, as Sarah is the girlfriend of Paul Chambers, the defendant in the Twitter Joke Trial, the question has been raised whether it is consistent to support free expression in his case, but not in the case of a vile (and thankfully now ended) Twitter campaign.

No sensible person believes free speech is an absolute right. If it was, obtaining goods and services by deception could not be an offence. Providing a false invoice is not a "speech act" that should be accorded the protection of human rights law. Nor is blackmail or conspiracy to murder.

Nor is a bomb hoax. Such actions are rightly prohibited by the Criminal Law Act 1977, the law in respect of which Paul was initially arrested. However, the police and the Crown Prosecution Service quickly realised that there was no evidential basis for charging Paul under that offence. It was not what he had actually done. It is the fact that the CPS decided to prosecute Paul anyway, and chose the obscure and vague Section 127 of the Communications Act to do so, that causes significant concern from the perspective of free expression.

Free expression is a qualified right, but the presumption must always be in favour of it. Any interference with it must be proportionate and exact. And the prohibition must always be in the wider public interest.

Was the "managed anorexia" campaign the health equivalent of a bomb hoax, which would be rightly prosecuted under the Criminal Law Act? If so, the same principles would apply: there are words that can do damage, and in respect of which there should be a prohibition. Indeed, the promotion of health products is a tightly regulated area for this reason.

Or was the "managed anorexia" campaign a speech act that should have the unconditional protection of the right to free expression?

Views will differ on these questions. However, if a "managed anorexia" campaign is indeed more akin to an actual bomb hoax than to a jokey tweet, then it is perfectly open to condemn one, and to defend the right to send the other.

I suspect there is not a single supporter of the Twitter Joke Trial who also believes that there should be no prohibitions on promoting dangerous health practices. The problem is where to draw the line. But it is not hypocritical to believe that there is a line to be drawn.

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman. He is also solicitor for Paul Chambers.