Thursday, January 15, 2015

Caveat Emptor

I think the weirdest thing about the last week has been the aggressive sales job for freedom of speech.

Perhaps I'm getting cynical as I get older, but I'm always suspicious when people give me the hard sell for products that I supposedly already own.  Being British, I imagine most of us probably have a good idea that when people knock on our doors to sell us e.g. "freedom" with big smiles and handshakes, it's probably time to check your pockets for your wallet.

Good products always have a way of selling themselves, I tend to find.  You never see any adverts for shagging, for example, but there's plenty of it going on everywhere.  Nobody advertises drugs but the trade  roars ever onwards. 

Theoretically at least, we're already free to say whatever we like, threats excepted.  Three armed twats with grudges can hardly rip our freedom away from all of us, and a few idiots with blogs and newspaper columns aren't going to wipe it out with snotty comments, no matter how hard people are trying to convince us otherwise.

The only people who have the power to seriously fuck with free speech are the people we elect, and it looks to me like the folk who are currently issuing the loudest hosannas for freedom rarely pay much attention to what those jokers are up to, or actively run PR for their bright ideas.

So you know, the hard sell is a bit bizarre to see.  Caveat emptor and all that. 

10 comments:

chris y said...

Be it noted that in fact our elected representatives in the person of Cameron has seized on the recent events in France and Belgium to advocate a radical reduction in our right to free speech.

(It might be argued that he doesn't realise that this is what he's advocating because he's illiterate. I don't care.)

Anonymous said...

"Theoretically at least, we're already free to say whatever we like, threats excepted."

No, we're not. In the UK, there are several statutes which criminalise "communication which is hateful, threatening, abusive, or insulting and which targets a person on account of skin colour, race, disability, nationality (including citizenship), ethnic or national origin, religion, or sexual orientation".

Similar laws exist pretty much everywhere in the world, and are endorsed by the United Nations by way of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which states that "any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law".

In short, freedom of speech is not an absolute right. Even Amnesty International accepts that there are circumstances in which free speech can (should?) be restricted.

The difficulties arise in trying to determine when "offence" becomes threatening or harmful. Naturally, opinions vary, and it's this which is the crux of the matter - a point which it seems to me has been generally overlooked in the Charlie Hebdo debate.

flyingrodent said...

In the UK, there are several statutes which criminalise "communication which is hateful, threatening, abusive, or insulting and which targets a person on account of skin colour, race, disability, nationality (including citizenship), ethnic or national origin, religion, or sexual orientation".

Yes, I'm aware of that. It makes a quick off-the-cuff blogpost a bit less snappy when you have to lay out the full situation in law, mind you.

90% of the stuff covered by the laws you're talking about is pretty much fine by me - we collectively sacrifice numerous freedoms in order to get on as a society, most of them without anyone ever having consulted us on them. The cost of most of these laws is that it's now punishable to verbally abuse people in the street for their skin colour, religion, sexuality etc. and it's illegal to post hateful prejudiced abuse at them.

This doesn't strike me as a major problem. If anything, I'm actively in favour of it, because I think people should be able to go about their business without people intentionally being as much of a cunt as it's possible to be at them, and because I don't see a major difference between tweeting abuse at people and sending abuse to them through the post.

There's also a live issue around the cops investigating comments that are either not hateful or are hateful but made to no-one in particular. Sorting that out will require everyone involved being calm and not turning into a hysterical puddle of piss at the first sign of disagreement, so I'm not confident, but such things havea way of working out.

(In addition, there are issues around football supporters in Scotland, who it seems are subject to significantly harsher treatment than other members of society are. Few people in Scotland care about that though because a) it's only football fans getting busted and b) they're mostly Old Firm supporters, and not even other football fans have sympathy for them).

Anonymous said...

Fair enough. But I would still maintain that the situation is much more nuanced than you seem to suggest.

You say that most current restrictions on freedom of speech is the UK are "pretty much fine" by you, and you include the provision that "it's now punishable to verbally abuse people in the street for their skin colour, religion, sexuality etc."

But what's verbal abuse? Calling someone a n****r? Or a poof? Or a Paki?

No-one knows. And that's why these are bad laws, and why many believe they're applied in a haphazard fashion (cf l'affaire Sine).

Don't get me wrong. I'm a fierce defender of free speech. But too often free expression seems to be defined as "freedom to say anything, so long as I agree with it".

And just as a topical postscript, where would you stand on Clare Short's repeated attempts to get the Sun's Page Three declared illegal?

ejh said...

But what's verbal abuse? Calling someone a n****r? Or a poof? Or a Paki?

No-one knows


Really? There is no statute or case law on this? There are no legal definitions nor judgements which might allow us to understand what it means in practice, even if (as with any other aspect of legality) any given case might or might not easily fit that understanding?

Anonymous said...

ejh - Yes, there are a number of statutes and case law examples on the legal record. But, no, they don't particularly help us, on a day to day basis, to understand what they may mean in practice.

That's because there's a tension between the principle of free speech and the principle of outlawing hate speech (assuming, of course, that such a thing exists in the first place).

My examples were an attempt to illustrate the difficulties involved. No amount of statute or case law can tell us whether the use of the "n" word is abusive or not. It all depends.

For a more detailed consideration of the legal issues, see for example http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Admin/2011/247.html.

flyingrodent said...

I can't speak for the situation south of the border, but racist abuse used to be covered here by the general offence of Breach of the peace, a charge that used to cover everything from shouting aggressively in the street up to stalking and could be heard anywhere up to the High Court.

These days we've particularised the law a bit more and general alarming abuse is covered by S38(1) of the Criminal Justice & Licensing Act 2010. Generally, this is for situations in which people (usually but not always pissed) are kicking off and verbally abusing people in an aggressive and threatening manner.

In both cases, any racist abuse would be included via a racial aggravation to the charge, as would other forms of minority-hating patter.

This is entirely fair enough in my book, as it doesn't usually cover people saying things like "Gosh Horatio, I'm jolly displeased about all the black people" but it does end with prosecutions for people who scream filthy and intimidating racial abuse at people in the street.

And personally, I'm fine with this and would be happy even if there was a specific "racist abuse" offence, although that seems to be unnecessary at present.

And tangentially, offences that are clearly motivated by e.g. racial or homophobic hatred (these aren't usually all that hard to spot, I've found) should IMO be treated the same as unprovoked offences - people minding their own business when some zoomer starts abusing or attacking them with no reasonable cause. Unprovoked aggression is a sign that offenders have difficulty controlling themselves and are a danger to the general public, or to particular parts of the public.

The various minority groups should have confidence that they'll be able to go out and about without being targeted specifically because of their race, religion, sexuality and so on, just as everyone should expect protection from unreasonable hassle from zoomers, and I think it's highly desirable for the justice system to address this kind of crime in an explicitly racial, religious etc. context.

It's certainly true that this becomes very muddy legally-speaking when you have e.g. two equally culpable people fighting in a 50/50 square-go and the racist insults come out, for example. But the proper place to work that out is the courts and while there are always balls-ups and weird decisions, I'd say the Scottish courts are doing a fairly good job.


*Note here that you don't even have to be gay or non-white to be abused for being gay or non-white, as should be fairly obvious to people who spend any time in courts, or even just on the streets of a large town or city of a Friday night.

Anonymous said...

@ flying rodent: I broadly agree.

I don't want to extend this discussion beyond it's natural length, but I still cleave to my point that, for many, the right to "free expression" in the UK seems to be applied on a haphazard basis.

Thus, for example, Julien LeBlanc was denied entry to the UK apparently to preclude the possibility that he might say something which many people might find offensive. Yet at the same time Charlie Hebdo is praised for actually saying things which many people would definitely find offensive.

Many countries use the principle of "hate speech" to suppress inconvenient opinions and I think the same is often true in the UK, though obviously not on the scale which can be found elsewhere.

Which is why I find much of the comment on the Charlie Hebdo affair to be cant, pure and simple.

flyingrodent said...

Which is why I find much of the comment on the Charlie Hebdo affair to be cant, pure and simple.

Well, I think we can all agree on that point.

organic cheeseboard said...

Agreed on cant, but:

Julien LeBlanc was denied entry to the UK apparently to preclude the possibility that he might say something which many people might find offensive

wasn't it because his 'seminars' are effectively encouragement, maybe actual instruction, on how to sexually assault women?