Tag Archives: free speech

Free Speech, Offence, and Maajid Nawaz

Maajid Nawaz, the author of Radical and the Liberal Democrat Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for Hampstead and Kilburn, has been at the centre of a controversy this week, after he tweeted a image from the satirical Jesus and Mo cartoon series.  Maajid had been a guest on the BBC’s The Big Questions debate show, where the illustration had been discussed.  He made the point that as a liberal Muslim, he found nothing offensive about the cartoon.

Cue an angry social media backlash.  Many people tweeted their condemnations and threats over what they perceived as a blasphemy.
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Questions for the Impress Project, part I

Last Monday, my former colleagues Jonathan Heawood and Lisa Appignanesi launched the Impress project. This is an attempt to devise a new press regulator that is compliant with the principles of the Leveson Report, but also tempered to resist being nobbled by either the politicians or the press. Continue reading

The Coercive Royal Charter

The Royal Charter that would establish a body to oversee press regulation was due to be referred to the Privy Council today. But industry bodies representing the press have filed an injunction against that happening. The court will examine the application this morning. Legal blogger and former government lawyer Carl Gardner says judges may grant the injunction for the time being, even as he doubts that any legal challenge by the press will ultimately succeed.

In the Monday editon of the Guardian, Helen Anthony (legal consultant to English PEN) laid out a succinct explanation of just what is wrong with the new regulatory system. Continue reading

Should Schools Ban Slang?

The headteacher at the Harris Academy in London has banned the pupils from using slang.  This is not a new thing:  Earlier this year, a school in Sheffield did the same thing, the Manchester Academy in Moss Side introduced a similar policy in 2008… and its exam results increased the following year.

UCB Radio asked me on the the Paul Hammond show to discuss the issue.  You can listen to my contribution by following this link, or via the SoundCloud player below. Continue reading

The Outliers

I have worked for (and with) some courageous people at English PEN.  I am often struck by the personal cost of exercising your right to free expression, and how damaging to life and finances taking stand can be.

For Banned Books Week, I was asked by Tor.com to write a piece on these people, the ‘Outliers’ who do the thing that most people would not.


Have you ever been stood up by Cory Doctorow? I have. Back in 2010 I was due to interview him at the London Book Fair about his latest novel For The Win. I read his entire back catalogue and planned loads of insightful questions, but when the time came for the interview in the PEN Literary cafe, he didn’t show up. Later, I received an e-mail from him with a preposterous and obviously made-up excuse about how his plane had been grounded by a volcano. So it was me on the stage with an empty chair. (My hastily written chat standard performance poem “The Empty Chair a.k.a Cory Doctorow Is Not Here Today” rocked YouTube, with literally dozens of views.) Continue reading

A few quick notes on the Twitter arrest

The Guardian reports:

Man arrested over Twitter threats to female MP and campaigner.
Police investigating threats to Stella Creasy and Caroline Criado-Perez say 32-year-old is being held in Bristol.

Some quick notes:

  1. Let us affirm that sending direct threats of violence to people is against the law.  Arresting and charging such people is not an affront to free expression.
  2. In fact, the threats are themselves an act of censorship.  They instill fear in the recipient, who may withdraw from the discourse.
  3. This arrest is in keeping with the Director of Public Prosecutions recent guidelines on dealing with social media messages.  The guidelines recommend that direct threats and harassment should be proecuted ‘robustly’.  Expect this chap in Bristol to be charged.
  4. Note that the police managed to track down this chap using existing powers and technical abilities.
  5. It is interesting that the man arrested is 32 years old.  All the other arrests and convictions were of much younger men.  Reece Messer (who trolled Tom Daley) was only 17.

Quoted in the Washington Post

I’m delighted to have spoken to the Washington Post for an article about the Twitter abuse furore:

“The worry is that the abuse button will be abused,” said Robert Sharp, a spokesman for English PEN, a literary group that promotes freedom of expression. “It puts the power of censorship into the hands of those who would be offended, which is fine when it’s a rape threat. But the same technology will be used by Christians to censor atheists, used by atheists to censor Christians, and so on.”

Credit where its due: Tom Phillips’ article on theTwitter abuse button was fresh in my mind when I spoke to the WaPo journalist.  And there’s a huge body of work out there on the issue of ‘offence’ as a trigger for censorship.  My turn of phrase “those who would be offended” is not natural speech, but its the sort of thing that springs to mind when you’ve been marinated in these kinds of arguments.

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The Defamation Act 2013: Complete & Unabridged

As is my wont, I made a book to illustrate this. Physical objects are useful props in debates like this: immediately illustrative, and useful to hang an argument and peoples’ attention on.

James Bridle is probably best known as the artist who first articulated ‘The New Aesthetic‘, but he has run many projects on books and technology. His project ‘The Iraq War‘ is a favourite of mine – the entire Wikipedia Edit History of the ‘Iraq War’ article, from 2005-2009, which stretches to twelve volumes. He’s also the creator of a Book of Tweets.

James’ projects are the inspiration of one of my own – The Defamation Act 2013: Complete & Unabridged. It collects together, in chronological order, every single parliamentary document published during the passage of the recent reform of our libel law. These include the various versions of the Bill (which I have previously published in a spliced together version, ‘Tracked Changes in the Defamation Bill‘), the parliamentary Hansard transcripts of the debates; and the amendment papers. Continue reading

Twitter trolls vs The Angry Mob

There has been another wave of online discussion about ‘trolling’ on social media platforms like Twitter.  The latest round of debate began after Caroline Criado-Perez wrote about the hideous abuse she received during the course of her campaign to keep a woman on the £10 note.

I have contributed a few comments in the past on this issue, and do not have anything new to say on the current controversy, save to say that at some point (it may be now, it may be later) the politicians will seek to impose legislation on this kind of speech.  I mentioned this conundrum during my #ORGcon panel discussion with David Allen Green et al in June.

In the meantime, a few quick links:

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