The UK Director of Public Prosecutions has said that too many prosecutions over ‘offensive’ comments on networking sites such as Twitter will have a “chilling effect” on free speech.
In something more reminiscent of soviet era Stalinism, users of social networks who post something considered ‘offensive’ can be arrested, prosecuted, and sent to prison.
The excuse used to prosecute the ‘offenders’ is the Communications Act 2003, which states that it is an offence to send messages via a public network that are “grossly offensive”. Another piece of legislation that could also be used is the Malicious Communications Act 1988, which was updated in 2001 to include electronic communications, which makes it illegal to send a message for the purpose of causing “distress and anxiety”.
Both of these pieces of legislation were in place before Twitter (2006) and Facebook (2004) were formed.
Section 127 of the Communications Act was originally intended to prosecute people making nuisance phone calls or abusive emails. The Malicious Communications Act was originally intended to prosecute people sending threats, purposely spreading false information, and messages which are “indecent” or “grossly offensive”.
In today’s world it seems that there will always be someone who is offended by something and start squealing like a stuck pig, so whatever someone posts on a networking site is liable to be considered “offensive” under the current legislation.
The number of prosecutions brought against people using social networking sites has increased 9 fold over the past four years.
In the touchy feely politically correct world we live in the police are so scared stiff of being sued that most cases are passed to the Crown Prosecution Service, who consider if taking the case to court is “in the public interest”
In an interview in The Telegraph, the Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer, said “I think that if there are too many investigations and too many cases coming to court then that can have a chilling effect on free speech. This is about trying to get the balance right, making sure time and resources are spent on cases that really do need to go to court, and not spent on cases which people might think really would be better dealt with by a swift apology and removal of the offending tweet.”, which seems like a common-sense kind of approach to us.
People do need protecting from those with malicious intent, and if someone purposefully posts messages to harass or purposely cause distress to others then there should be legal redress.
However, too many people think that something they consider to be offensive is offensive to everyone else, which may not be the case – especially when truthful statements are made with the aim of exposing someone’s wrongdoing.
In many of the cases brought before the courts, or where people have been sued for damages, common-sense would dictate that a simple apology is enough. But in this litigious society there will always be those who will jump to court action without any thought or discussion – or any use of their own brains in resolving the situation or listening to the other side.
If prosecutions take place for people expressing genuine opinions, then the concept of any kind of free speech is lost, and the UK will become more controlled, and the population further dumbed down and afraid to express alternative opinions or engaged in genuine debate. The process of learning and understanding other will disappear and the population become nothing more than duplicate robot minds doing as they are told.
A sensible balance needs to be maintained between protection and free speech.