Nick Griffin and the Limits of Free Speech

BNP Chairman Nick Griffin MEP has just caused a bit of a Twitter storm by publishing the address of a gay couple who sued a Christian B&B couple who refused them board.
I spend a lot of time on this blog defending the right of bigots and racists to say horrible things, online and in person.  However, I think this superficially anodyne tweet might actually cross the line into territory I would not defend.
Why?  Well, first, there is an invasion of privacy.  Griffin is a public figure with a large Twitter following.  The couple in question have a reasonable expectation that their address will not be broadcast.
More importantly, the tweet could be considered inciting violence and harassment.  In a followup, Griffin said a ‘British Justice Team’ (whatever that is) should visit to give them ‘a bit of drama’.  If it were my address that had been published, I would feel harassed and terrorised and probably go and stay elsewhere for a few days.
This is the sort of ‘direct’ incitement I have spoken of previously when considering the boundaries of free speech.
Regardless of whether people visit this house or not, this controversy will unfold in a particularly frustrating manner.  Griffin has already begun to complain that he is a free speech martyr, the victim of hypocrisy, denied free speech yet again.  But that is not what is going on here.  The tweets are unacceptable not because he is a misguided racist, but because they directly incite violence and invade privacy.  It is entirely consistent to say that these tweets are beyond the pale, while simultaneously defending the right of people to make sick jokes and the celebrate the death of British soldiers.
This distinction may well be lost in the 140 character world of Twitter.  Doubtless the subtlties outlined above will be lost.  And if someone tries to prosecute Nick Griffin for this, it will be a huge headache for those of us who think that the convictions of Matthew Woods, Azhar Ahmed and Liam Stacy were excessive, and who are planning to respond to the DPP consultation on social media.
On the issue of gays and Christian B&B owners, I have written previously about why I think the owners have no right to discriminate.  Regardless of whether the B&B is someone’s house, the owners are running a business, which is a public act, subject to the public laws.

4 Replies to “Nick Griffin and the Limits of Free Speech”

  1. I think the lines in this case are quite clear. This isn’t someone stating a political opinion, it’s someone inciting violence and putting other people’s lives in danger. I don’t see how it would be difficult to state that Nick Griffin should be arrested over this (and I hope he is) whilst simultaneously defending the other cases you’ve mentioned. Offending people is in a whole different category from specific threats of violence.

  2. If there was an analagous case to consider here, where freedom of speech is an issue, perhaps Barry Thew is a better example. Certainly there were threats of violence in this case, but they’re not in any way specific or credible. I doubt any police were left concerned for their safety by his actions. Instead it seems very much he was arrested and charged for offending others.
    It’s interesting to note there’s clear distinction in law between Section 4 and Section 4A (which Barry Thew was charged under) in the Public Order Act 1986 [1]. The former requires a credible belief that violence will be carried out as part of the actions, whereas the latter only requires the causation of “harassment, alarm or distress”. Of course, the usual disclaimer about not being a lawyer applies here, but it does appear the distinction is possible.

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