#TwitterJokeTrial and Hate Speech

Criminalising such vile and obnoxious messages does not challenge the root cause of racism, but simply sends such sentiments underground.

Paul Chambers was in the High Court yesterday, appealing his conviction for ‘menacing communications’ after posting a tweet in frustration. His lawyer David Allen Green has written a great summary of the case over at the New Statesman.

Here’s an Al-Jazeera news report on the appeal.

Amazingly, Al Jazeera asked yrstrly onto the programme after they transmitted this package, to speak for English PEN on the issue of twitter censorship. Sadly, my 3 minutes of International Fame are not appended to the clip above. (UPDATE: My interview is now online here). The discussion was less about the Chambers case in particular, and more about where one draws the line and censors what one can say on social networks.

My aide memoir, listing people who have been censored for social media postings, was very useful.  To the three cases I cited there, we should also add Liam Stacey, who posted gleeful, racist tweets after Fabrice Muamba had a heart attack, and Josh Cryer who sent racist abuse to Stan Collymore.  On a releated list, we might consider Leigh Van Bryan, who was detained by the US authorities after posting tweets saying he was going to “destroy America” and “dig up Marylin Monroe” on a forthcoming trip.

Leading into my interview, presenter Felicity Barr also mentioned the case of Hamza Kashgari, who is being prosecuted in Saudi Arabia for blasphemy (which could carry the death penalty) after posting a poem on Twitter.

The key question I had to answer was whether we should allow racist tweeting.  My answer was that criminalising such vile and obnoxious messages does not challenge the root cause of racism, but simply sends such sentiments underground where they become more insidious.  Furthermore, criminalising offensive messages gives a green light to countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran and China to prosecute people for tweets that they deem ‘offensive’, which naturally includes those that criticise the Government!  When the censorship of Twitter was discussed last year during The Riots, the Chinese government were quick to use that as justification for their own draconian policies.

I was also able to make the point that allowing people to say abhorrent things does not mean we allow them to go unchallenged.  In fact, we have a moral obligation to condemn them and argue with them, in the hope that these horrible views do not spread further.  Kenan Malik has the set text on this point.

Let us not forget that there was nothing racist in Paul Chambers’ tweet. It was obviously a joke and common sense should have prevailed. The fact that the Crown Prosecution Service and the Magistrates who heard the case could not tell the difference between a genuine bomb threat and a joke shows that the people hearing the case are neither digital natives nor digital immigrants, but digital xenophobes who have no idea of how ordinary people speak and communicate. The judiciary should understand and relate to the people over whom they preside. One tweet I read said that, during the hearing yesterday, one judge smiled when the offending tweet was read out… So let us hope the Judges in the High Court are a little more savvy than their colleagues in the lower courts.

More importantly: The fact that Chambers was prosecuted at all is testament to the way in which our legal processes have been warped by the fear of a terrorist attack. The entire purpose of terrorism is to sow such fear that the society breaks down. In the prosecution of Chambers, we see that process in action.

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