If limits are placed on what can be said can we still say that we have "Free Speech"? I've been thinking about this over the weekend in the wake of "The Twitter Cunt Trail". You won't have heard about it in any of the mainstream media probably for the very reason that it involves "The C word" but in essence what happened is that someone who goes by the name of Olly Cromwell was convicted, in effect, of calling someone a cunt on Twitter. You can read the background to this here and some more on Max Farquar's blog here.
I'll leave to one side for a moment the fact that this does appear to be a vindictive, politically motivated prosecution intended to shut up a individual who certain people in power find to be "troublesome" for actually holding them to account and just look at are there "limits" that can be placed on free speech.
I do not believe that there are, any restriction on what can and can't be said or written means speech is not free. That's not to say that there are repercussions from that freedom. The famous example is shouting "Fire" in a crowded theatre; you have the right to but you would have to suffer the consequences of that action. Also if I were to start making untrue allegations in the intent to slander a person, say by starting a blog that makes post after post insisting without any evidence that Councellor Whatsisface enjoys the intimate sexual company of farmyard animals, then it is only proper that Councellor Whatsisface would be able to seek some form of redress.
However that's a very long way from someone having an opinion on Councellor Whatsisface; in this case a crudely worded opinion that he's a cunt but that's as valid an opinion as any other. Sure if someone called me a cunt I'd be somewhat upset but I'd just call then a goat sperm gargling cockwomble back. What they said was probably just a heat of the moment throwaway remark and I certainly would not go running to the law because I was "offended". Likewise if I was to say something on Twitter like "White people are smarter than black people so we should have no black politicians" the correct response to me would be to say back "Bollocks, you're wrong and stupid and this is why...", not go off screaming for the tumbrils to haul me to the guillotine for "racially aggravated hate speech" On that latter point it's worth bearing in mind that for many years that was the prevailing orthodoxy and it took brave people to stand up and using speech and the written word to challenge that false assumption and I am sure those in power at the time found the idea that all men are of equal talents regardless of the colour of their skin "offensive"
And it's this "offence" that's the problem here. The law in question (2003 Telecommunications Act I think) makes in illegal to cause offence. Now I'm sure that this piece of NuLabour control freakery was conceived with the nobler motive of being able to go after the worst kind of cyber-stalking but with "I was affronted" seemingly now meaning "I was offended" and people being dragged to court for saying "cunt" and "Dead black footballer. LOL" by what appear to be the "professionally offended"
And this is a problem, a big one. These laws and judgements put the dead hand of fear onto free speech so speakers and writers are constantly checking themselves, not entirely sure if what they are going to say will see them thrown into jail and their lives destroyed because someone found their idea "offensive". At the very least this idea that seems to have seeped into society and is now enshrined in statute that any person has the absolute right not to be affronted needs to go lest we all fall slowly into the perpetual silence of fear.
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