Twitter troll prosecution campaign threatens free speech and cheapens the real fight against hate crime
It might come as a surprise to people that, having been victim of hate crime, I’m concerned about the current hard line being taken against Twitter’s very nasty trolls.
Earlier this month, 41-year-old David Limond was convicted of committing a racially and religiously aggravated breach of the peace after a broadcast in which he featured me as “Taig of the day” and encouraged his listeners to throw all manner of abuse my way online.
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Singled out both because of my professional work as a book editor and journalist and because of my Irish Catholic heritage, the attack wasn’t on me just as an individual, but as a journalist.
Anyone who has heard a recording of the broadcast has remarked on the level of aggression contained within it, and there has never been any question in their minds about its threatening nature. I wasn’t simply offended, I was frightened, and it had a very real effect on my life.
When that kind of hate becomes a genuine infringement on another person’s life, then there is a criminal case to answer.
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However, when the discussion turns much more basically to expressions of vile opinions, as uncomfortable as those make us, the war on hate crime begins venturing down the path of restricting free speech.
Caroline Criado-Perez is a prime example of an individual picked out, bombarded with hateful abuse – in this case connected to gender - and then continuously harassed. I support her right to be protected from such a campaign through the resources of the law.
However, recent distasteful and offensive comments relating to the Clutha helicopter disaster may have disgusted all of us, but did they really warrant the involvement of Scotland’s very own Lord Advocate instructing prosecutors to take a “hard line” on offence?
While comments or jokes made about tragic events are deplorable, free speech cannot be redefined into ‘free speech that we like’.
Expanding the definition of hate crime to include anything that people find offensive cheapens its purpose. Creating crime born from the notion of offence is a dangerous ground. Causing offence cannot be equated to incitement. Many of the comments hitting the headlines are born out of sheer stupidity; online idiocy is filling up Britain’s courtrooms.
Free speech includes the right to offend people; the right to express outrageous opinions that make opposing minds furious. Whether we like it or not, people are free to hate other people – we are not all obliged or required to like each other, as lovely as the thought may be.
What we are required to do is abide by basic tolerance; violence, incitement, harassment and discrimination on the basis of bigotry, racism and hatred is not acceptable in a decent society, but equally, tolerance extends to free speech and the right of other people to hold and express unpopular views.
With social media, tolerance is being tested like never before, and if society is keen to peg itself as a free and democratic one, lines must be drawn and people must think very hard about what they are willing to allow to be criminalised.