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  • Lawrence Bailey

When freedom of expression causes offence


For me, the ability to roll out my thoughts in print every week in this column is quite a privilege.

I make no pretence at balance – it’s an opinion piece after all – but I acknowledge that there are different viewpoints to mine.

I’ve never seen much point in being deliberately controversial, although there are some who are convinced there’s a living to be made pursuing a ‘shock-jock’ agenda.

One high-profile example, until now, has been the pundit Katie Hopkins. However, the divisive commentator recently found herself excluded permanently from Twitter for offensive posts.

The social network giant stated, "Keeping Twitter safe is a top priority for us - abuse and hateful conduct have no place on our service and we will continue to take action when our rules are broken”.

You can to check out the relevant rules yourself by clicking (https://help.twitter.com/en/rules-and-policies/hateful-conduct-policy).

Her banishment prompted predictable yada-yada about denial of free speech and so on. Yet I’m betting that most people shouting the odds in capitals letters on websites are a bit fuzzy about their actual rights.

As it happens, Article 10 of the Human Rights Act 1998, states that “everyone has the right to freedom of expression” in the UK. Importantly though, there is a qualification which advises that such freedom “may be subject to formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society”.

In addition, we have Section 4 of the Public Order Act 1986 (POA), which makes it an offence for a person to use “threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour that causes, or is likely to cause, another person harassment, alarm or distress”.

Meanwhile, Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 makes it illegal to send a message via a public electronic communications network that is considered grossly offensive, or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character.

So, as you can see, your absolute entitlement to free speech is a lot more constrained than you might have thought.

Aside from legislation, the reality is that whenever you sign up to any social media platform or group, you also sign up to a code of behaviour.

Accordingly, it’s the outfit, not you, who get to decide as to what constitutes a transgression. In other words, it doesn’t matter if it’s Twitter, your local pub or the Brownies, if you persistently and knowingly break the rules then you’re likely to get kicked out.

It’s noticeable how some individuals try to conflate the right of expression with a right to cause offence. This wilfully obtuse outlook might just about work in the abstract sense but, as Donald Trump is finding out, it stumbles badly when someone else owns the technology.

Like many others, I have little time for self-aggrandising politicians who insist that social media conglomerates should do more in terms of regulation and then scream foul when it actually happens.

You can regard it as a downside to democracy, if you like, but the digital world has its own rules. That the industry is now prepared to flex its enforcement muscles sends a distinct message - and it may not be one that some people want to hear.

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