A couple of weeks ago I gave an interview to journalism student Elizabeth Perlman about the work of English PEN and my approach to free speech. Elizabeth has uploaded an excerpt from the interview to the Hack Freedom website. Continue reading Gushing about PEN and free speech to Hack Freedom
The year 2015 has begun with a great deal of debate about free speech. The fanatics who murdered the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists saw to that—their sympathisers in Copenhagen have kept the fire burning.
The discussion has largely been about what one can say about your ideological opponents. Is it Okay to blaspheme? What are the limits to giving offence? When does criticism of one group or another slide into hate speech and incitement. In these examples we usually debate whether the law can interfere with our speech.
It’s worth noting that other kinds of free speech dilemmas exist. An important example of this is on show in Peter Oborne’s seething explanation for why he resigned from the Daily Telegraph.
Continue reading Free speech is the courage to burn bridges
First published in the International Business Times.
Last week, the Community Security Trust, a charity that records attacks and harassment against Jews living in the UK, recorded 1,168 anti-Semitic incidents in 2014 — double the figure reported in the previous year.
On Monday, a group of British MPs published a report noting that whenever there is heightened conflict in the Middle-East, the rate of crime against Jews in the UK increases. The All-Party Parliamentary Group Against Antisemitism (APPGAA) also noted that the problem “continues to emanate from Islamist extremists, far-left and far-right groups” and made a number of recommendations to government, the police and the media to combat the issue.
The APPGAA report singles out social media as “a breeding ground for serious discriminatory and racist content” and recommends that the Crown Prosecution Service explores the use of prevention orders in cases where someone has been prosecuted for cyber-hate. Offenders would have their devices confiscated and be banned from using social media. The newspapers have labelled this idea ‘Twitter ASBOs’. Continue reading Twitter Asbos would squeeze freedom of expression without curbing anti-Semitic hatred
Here’s a fantastic feature article by Gillian Orr in today’s Independent, detailing the brilliant Draw The Line Here project. Yrstrly is quoted endorsing the book:
“It’s fantastic that these cartoonists are using their own right to free speech, to defend and advance the free speech of others,” says English PEN’s Robert Sharp.
Its a crowdfunded project. Head over to the Crowdshed website to support English PEN ands the victims of the Charlie Hebdo massacre.
We’re 100 days out from the election, and the Sun has launched a manifesto – a #Sunifesto – for Britain.
Their last bullet point is about free speech. Incredibly, this is not about press regulation, the harmonisation of our libel laws, extremism ‘banning’ orders or police abuse of RIPA to track down whistleblowers. This is odd because The Sun is at the heart of all these issues.
Instead, it’s about the dangers of Twitter mobs.
The paper complains about the police “wrongly” acting against those who have caused offence. “Unless it’s illegal, it’s NOT police business”.
The problem with this is that causing offence is illegal. Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 expressly criminalises ‘grossly offensive’ messages. And of course, what constitutes gross offence is in the eye of the beholder. So the highly subjective test in the law enables and encourages abuse.
The Sun blames political correctness for this and implores us to #forgawsakegrowapair. But it’s not political correctness that causes the mischief here. The principle of free speech permits not only the right to offend, but the right to say that you have been offended, even on Twitter. For many people it takes courage to speak out and tell a powerful newspaper columnist that they’re being crass and prejudiced. For many, politically correct fury is indeed “growing a pair” (we’ll ignore the sexist overtones of that phrase for now).
Appallingly, people in the UK are given prison sentences for making tasteless comments online. The Sun claims to stand up for Free Speech, but (as is perhaps inevitable, given the name of the paper) it’s a fair weather friend. Where was the Sun when Robert Riley and Jake Newsome were jailed for unpleasant social media postings?
For social media, the free speech policy must be reform of s.127. Free speech cannot just be for the newspapers. It must be for the Tweeters, too.
Well, that was a short lived celebration, wasn’t it? After a just week, the Sun has reversed its editorial policy, and the topless models are back on Page 3.
This rather dates my post from only yesterday, which begins talking about the ‘success’ of the No More Page 3 campaign.
I stand by the post itself, though, and repeat the core point: no law, no police, no threat of violence were part of the decision over whether the pictures should be published. The choice to publish or not remains free. Freedom of expression prevails! Note that the Sun suffers no sanction as it resumes publication. All this gives the lie to the ridiculous idea that this country had succumbed to politically correct censorship. We had not.
Though I remain of the view that Page 3 is a bad thing for society and am privately disappointed that it has returned, one cannot help but be wryly amused at the Sun’s tactics here. What label should we give it? ‘Machiavellian’? ‘A false retreat’? Trolling? The editors must be laughing their bellies off right now.
Happily, the No More Page 3 campaign understands that the debate is unlikely to end in the near term. They are happy to deploy their own right to free expression to continue their campaign. Here they are on Twitter, promoting their petition and welcoming new followers.
A special hello to all of our lovely new followers. Welcome to the future – even if not everyone is quite ready yet! https://t.co/ufDebYvVuo
— NoMorePage3 (@NoMorePage3) January 22, 2015
At first blush, the success of the No More Page 3 campaign does not look like a victory for free speech. After all, a thing that was being published, is no longer being published. The prudish censors have prevailed, right?
Look again. No law has been invoked to stop Rupert Murdoch from printing nipples on Page 3 (or, for that matter, Page 4 or 5). MPs did not vote on a new Bill. No lawyers have filed a complaint, no judge has granted an injunction. The law is not involved. Freedom of speech means a choice over whether to publish, and Mr Murdoch has chosen not to publish pictures of topless women any more. Continue reading The No More Page 3 Campaign is a Victory for Free Speech But Not For Feminism
Do we see a glimmer of light in the dark case of Raif Badawi? King Abdullah has referred the case to the Saudi Arabian supreme court, following the international dismay at the public flogging Badawi received earlier this month.
Last week the news was grim. The imprisoned blogger might not have received his scheduled 50 lashes on Friday morning, but this was no act of clemency on the part of the Saudi authorities. The flogging was only delayed because Badawi was too ill and weak from his flogging the week before.
One-thousand lashes and a 10 year prison term would be a brutal punishment for any crime. But the fact that Badawi has received this sentence for insulting Islam and of founding a liberal website is astonishing. The world is appalled. The Charlie Hebdo murders have drawn public attention to ideas of freedom of speech and blasphemy, and the Raif Badawi case offers a chillingly convenient coda to the events in Paris. Continue reading We can win the fight to save Raif Badawi from the horror of Saudi Arabian ‘justice’
On Friday morning, I led a small vigil outside the Embassy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in support of Raif Badawi, the blogger convicted of ‘Insulting Islam’ and ‘founding a liberal website.
— robertsharp59 (@robertsharp59) January 16, 2015
The public debate following a major news story has distinct phases. We are all literate in the stages: frantic news reports; confirmation of what has happened; The first opinion pieces, trying to make sense of what has happened (or, less charitably, spinning the events to fit the author’s world-view). Then we get push-back and counter-point to the earlier opinions; and ‘meta’ articles, discussing not the event itself, but the reporting, and the public response. Technology moves so fast that this piece I published on the Huffington Post is very much a ‘late era’ Charlie Hebdo article, despite the fact it was only (at the time of writing) six days since the hideous events in Paris. Continue reading I Am Not Brave Enough to ‘Be Charlie’… And Neither Are You