Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Tweets

Chris Baker looks at whether the recent court case has implications for social media

A Swansea University student was jailed today for posting offensive remarks on Twitter about the footballer Fabrice Muamba; recently known for collapsing in the middle of a football game from a heart problem.

The student allegedly embarked on a drunken tirade of racial slurs after initially mocking the footballer and receiving a good degree of verbal abuse in retaliation. But now he faces jail, and the question has to be asked: what precedent is being set here?

To qualify these uninformed student-y remarks (although I would hope this isn’t necessary to our intelligent readership)  I agree wholeheartedly that the racial slurs and insults are derogatory, offensive, and pathetic; as well as probably betraying a low IQ. I’m not defending what this man was saying, but what about his right to say it?

Freedom of speech is something cherished in this country and, from the evidence in the recent Arab Spring, something desperately wanted in other countries too: to the extent that people are fighting and dying to be able to say what they want, when they want. Yet here is a case where there is apparently no sign of inciting violence or encouraging others to take action. This is a man who has been arrested only for speaking online.

An easy argument might be that racism and offence does not fall under the remit of free speech, and should be forbidden. This would put the system in the uncomfortable position of having a person or persons deciding what is morally right and what cannot be said. One person alone responsible for this gargantuan issue sounds obscene, but allowing public opinion to restrict speech could lead to problems where minorities are concerned. This may be the correct approach, in the main, but should our society run the risk of sliding into a situation where non-mainstream views are somehow forbidden?

The nature of a ‘racist’ or ‘offensive’ or ‘homophobic’ remark is hard to determine, and is subjective. Some people may feel offended where others do not. What of the debate on allowing homosexuals to marry? Those campaigning for gay equality see the current situation as discriminatory and offensive, whereas those in – for instance- the Catholic Church believe it is right as a matter of great faith and belief. No help can be found then, in determining what is acceptable and what is unacceptable in public speech, by trying to establish who is offended.

I cannot think of a right answer to this conundrum. I do not envy those in a position of power who grapple with such issues every day: but this is a conversation that must be had for such an important bastion of our free society. Whether one takes it to the level of Evelyn Hall’s quote: “I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”, is a matter of some debate, but I will continue to worry about this debate as long as it threatens my right to say things like, “Piers Morgan is a bastard”.