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.

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

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Benn vs McDonnell: how Brexit has exposed the fight over Labour's party machine

In the wake of Brexit, should Labour MPs listen more closely to voters, or their own party members?

Two Labour MPs on primetime TV. Two prominent politicians ruling themselves out of a Labour leadership contest. But that was as far as the similarity went.

Hilary Benn was speaking hours after he resigned - or was sacked - from the Shadow Cabinet. He described Jeremy Corbyn as a "good and decent man" but not a leader.

Framing his overnight removal as a matter of conscience, Benn told the BBC's Andrew Marr: "I no longer have confidence in him [Corbyn] and I think the right thing to do would be for him to take that decision."

In Benn's view, diehard leftie pin ups do not go down well in the real world, or on the ballot papers of middle England. 

But while Benn may be drawing on a New Labour truism, this in turn rests on the assumption that voters matter more than the party members when it comes to winning elections.

That assumption was contested moments later by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell.

Dismissive of the personal appeal of Shadow Cabinet ministers - "we can replace them" - McDonnell's message was that Labour under Corbyn had rejuvenated its electoral machine.

Pointing to success in by-elections and the London mayoral election, McDonnell warned would-be rebels: "Who is sovereign in our party? The people who are soverign are the party members. 

"I'm saying respect the party members. And in that way we can hold together and win the next election."

Indeed, nearly a year on from Corbyn's surprise election to the Labour leadership, it is worth remembering he captured nearly 60% of the 400,000 votes cast. Momentum, the grassroots organisation formed in the wake of his success, now has more than 50 branches around the country.

Come the next election, it will be these grassroots members who will knock on doors, hand out leaflets and perhaps even threaten to deselect MPs.

The question for wavering Labour MPs will be whether what they trust more - their own connection with voters, or this potentially unbiddable party machine.