The arrest of a Dorset teenager for abuse of, and alleged death threats to, British Olympic diver Tom Daley on Twitter has divided both the Twittersphere and free speech activists. After Daley, and his partner Pete Waterfield, failed to win a medal in the synchronized diving competition, a Twitter user, @Rileyy_69, tweeted ‘You let your dad down’ (Daley’s father died last year of a brain tumour ). When Daley responded, understandably angry, @Rileyy_69 descended into abuse:
Hope your crying now you should be why can’t you even produce for your country your just a diver anyway a overhyped prick.
The tirade eventually gave way to this:
i’m going to find you and i’m going to drown you in the pool you cocky twat your a nobody people like you make me sick
There were similar threats to those who challenged @Rileyy_69:
i dont give a shit bruv i’m gonna drown him and i’m gonna shoot you he failed why you suporting him you cunt
All this has inevitably led to a fierce debate, on Twitter and elsewhere, about how we should deal with such abuse and threats. Many, including many free speech activists, have applauded the police action. Others have deplored it as an assault on free speech. A useful starting point in thinking about this issue is the recognition of the distinction between that which is unacceptable and that which should be a criminal offence. There are many things I find unacceptable but which I would not want to be made illegal. Throwing around racist, misogynistic or personal abuse is one of them.
How to deal with such abuse depends on context. Away from cyberspace, if anyone were hurling such abuse, on the streets, in a football stadium, or in a newspaper column, most people, I hope, would step in to challenge them and to defend those being abused. Because of the relative anonymity afforded by the Internet, and the fact that conversations are not face-to-face, the problem of abuse is often exacerbated on the web. In most cases one should again publicly challenge such invective, both to call out the abuser and to show solidarity with those being abused. Sometimes, however, it might be better simply to ignore the vitriol, to allow it to drift it into the silent spaces of cyberspace, rather than give more publicity to those whose sole whole aim is to seek it. What is not a useful way of dealing with such cases, however, is to look to the state to police them. I have long argued against the criminalization of hate speech:
I oppose content-based bans both as a matter of principle and with a mind to the practical impact of such bans. Such laws are wrong in principle because free speech for everyone except bigots is not free speech at all. It is meaningless to defend the right of free expression for people with whose views we agree. The right to free speech only has political bite when we are forced to defend the rights of people with whose views we profoundly disagree.
And in practice, you cannot reduce or eliminate bigotry simply by banning it. You simply let the sentiments fester underground. As Milton once put it, to keep out ‘evil doctrine’ by licensing is ‘like the exploit of that gallant man who thought to pound up the crows by shutting his Park-gate’.
Take Britain. In 1965, Britain prohibited incitement to racial hatred as part of its Race Relations Act. The following decade was probably the most racist in British history. It was the decade of ‘Paki-bashing’, when racist thugs would seek out Asians to beat up. It was a decade of firebombings, stabbings, and murders. In the early 1980s, I was organizing street patrols in East London to protect Asian families from racist attacks…
Today, Britain is a very different place. Racism has not disappeared, nor have racist attacks, but the open, vicious, visceral bigotry that disfigured the Britain when I was growing up has largely ebbed away. It has done so not because of laws banning racial hatred but because of broader social changes and because minorities themselves stood up to the bigotry and fought back.
To oppose the criminalization of hate speech, or of abuse, is not in other words, as some have suggested in the debate, to support hate speech or abuse. It is to protect freedom of expression and to challenge hate speech and abuse in the most effective way. Indeed, I believe it morally incumbent on those who campaign for free speech also to challenge obnoxious sentiments:
The whole point of free speech is to create the conditions for robust debate. And one reason for such robust debate is to be able to challenge obnoxious views. To argue for free speech but not to utilize it to challenge obnoxious, odious and hateful views seems to me immoral. It is morally incumbent on those who argue for free speech to stand up to racism and bigotry.
Much the same points could be made about challenging abuse. Looking to the police to deal with abuse is not only dangerous for free speech, it also allows the rest of us to avoid responsibility for dealing with abusers in our midst.
What of threats, including the alleged death threats? Again the response depends on context. Any direct or credible death threats or incitement to violence, any that pose a clear danger, should be a matter for the law. In recent years, however, notions of ‘abuse’, ‘hatred’ and ‘incitement’ have become very elastic, and the form of the words has become more important than the content or the intention. This has led to everything from the six-year prison sentences handed down to Muslim protestors outside the Danish embassy for holding placards such as ‘Annihilate those who abuse Islam’ and ‘Bomb, bomb Denmark’ to the original conviction of Paul Chambers in the ‘Twitter joke’ trial.
I am not suggesting that there is a comparison between @Rileyy_69’s abuse, the slogans of the Muslim anti-cartoon protestors and Paul Chambers’ Twitter joke. I am simply pointing out that once we allow concepts of incitement and threat to become so elastic, then we open up a broader problem for free speech. The reason for being wary of police action against someone like @Rileyy_69 is not because one wants to defend the abuse of Tom Daley, nor because one is sanguine about death threats, but because if we lose sight of the fact that threats have to be both credible and understood in context, then free speech in a broader sense becomes endangered. @Rileyy_69’s tweets, and not just to Tom Daley, were vile, abusive, obnoxious. But read in context, and with a bit of common sense, no one would take them as genuine death threats. This might be an individual craving attention, and perhaps even, as some have suggested, needing help, but not someone who is about to commit a murder.
There are often difficult questions about how, as a community, we challenge abuse, both online and offline, and about the fact that we often do not challenge such abuse but let it stand. But the fact that there are difficult questions does not mean that such abuse should be a matter for the criminal law.