The Semi-Public Square

Commenting on the social media banning of Donald Trump, Adam Wagner describes Twitter as a “semi public square”

In reply, a few people assert that there is no such thing. Twitter is a private company with its own T&Cs that can be enforced as it sees fit. This allows them to dismiss the President’s suspensions as “not censorship” and “not about free speech.”

This might be true in a legal sense but it is certainly not in a moral or social sense, where the term ‘semi-public square’ is useful and instantly understandable.

Semi-public squares are places where there may be no formal right to expression, but where the particular historic, societal or cultural circumstances have created the expectation of that right. In the case of social media, that expectation is actually cultivated by the tech companies themselves.

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#BeanDad and Online Harms

Baked Beans

Its Twelfth Night! Christmas is officially over, and we can return to the normality of publically shaming people on social media.

The first furore of the year concerns ‘Bean Dad’ John Roderick, a musician and podcaster. A few days ago, he posted a lengthy thread on Twitter about ‘teaching’ his nine-year-old daughter to use a can opener. According to his Tweets, he did this by refusing to feed her anything else until she worked out, on her own, how a can opener works.

I confess that when I read (and shared) the account, I saw it as a story about human ingenuity and perseverance. There were points about how tools come to be designed, and I do not think we should ever lose our wonder that young human beings can work out (after a few false starts) how to use such tools.

That’s not how everyone read it. To other people, Roderick was exhibiting classic bullying and abusive behaviour. He was a ‘sicko.’ It was eye-opening to re-read the thread in that light. Continue reading “#BeanDad and Online Harms”

There’s Something Frustrating About The Assange Extradition Decision

District Judge Vanessa Baraitser today handed down her decision in the USA v Assange extradition case.

The Americans were attempting to have Julian Assange shipped to the USA to face espionage charges for his role in the release of the Wikileaks cables. Press freedom advocates argued that to prosecute Assange would be a violation of his free speech rights (Padraig Reidy wrote a good summary last year).

Today, district judge Baraitser ultimately denied the extradition application, and human rights advocates are celebrating the judgment.

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Vagueness, Overbreadth and Unbridled Discretion in Law-making

Covid Positive sign in window

This crazy story about a university claiming that posters in a window “break the law” is a good example of how chaotic and inconsistent law-making can lead to a denial of liberty. Quick thread. #

I’ve been doing some reading on the ‘chilling effect’ recently. It’s usually used with regards to freedom of expression, but it’s a term imported from US legal thought, and can be applied to any kind of liberty or lawful activity. #

Supreme Court Justice William Brennan warned of how a ‘chill’ can be “generated by vagueness, overbreadth and unbridled discretion” of laws/state powers used to curb speech. (Dissent in Walker v City of Birmingham, 388 US 307 in 1967) # Continue reading “Vagueness, Overbreadth and Unbridled Discretion in Law-making”

Sometimes ‘Cancel Culture’ *Is* A Free Speech Issue

A letter in Harper’s Magazine, supporting the principle of free speech and bemoaning ‘cancel culture,’ has caused something of a stir. At least, on Twitter.

In itself, the letter is unobjectionable. However, many people think it is an ill-timed, coded rebuke to the social justice campaigns of the moment:

I think the uproar is more about the timing and the context in which this letter engages (BLM, TERF wars etc), which feels very dog whistle-y.

@sysh

Others have ridiculed its premise and the signatories. They say that freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences, and that if an audience reacts negatively to something they find offensive, that is merely a manifestation of free speech.

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Journalists Under Attack

I’m incredibly busy with a couple of major things at the moment made more difficult by the lockdown.

(No, not A Thousand And One Recaps — that’s ticking along just fine).

As a result of my distractions, have not had time to post about the appalling UK coronavirus death rate, the preposterous lockdown sabotage by Dominic Cummings, the horrific murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, or the atrocious glorification of violence by Donald Trump that has finally caused Twitter to place warnings next to his Tweets.

My silence on all these issues is not to be taken as due to a lack of opinion, or sufficient emotion about each of them. I just don’t have time.

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COVID19, Free Speech and the Right to Receive Information

In 2004, the writer Orhan Pamuk gave the inaugural Arthur Miller Freedom to Write lecture, at the Prague Writer’s Festival. Among his remarks, he said this:

I have personally known writers who have chosen to raise forbidden topics purely because they were forbidden. I think I am no different. Because when another writer in another house is not free, no writer is free. This, indeed, is the spirit that informs the solidarity felt by PEN, by writers all over the world.

Orhan Pamuk

I would often use the highlighted bit of that quote in English PEN’s marketing communications. I thought it would appeal to the worldliness of other writers, their solidarity and empathy with fellow wordsmiths.

But occasionally I would worry that the proper meaning of that quote was properly understood. Because taken literally, it’s obviously untrue. The fact that Ahmet Altan (to pick another Turkish novelist) is currently in prison and censored does not stop me writing my derivative science fiction or my bad poetry. Continue reading “COVID19, Free Speech and the Right to Receive Information”

If You’re Worried About Political Correctness Going Too Far, then You Had Better Oppose The Threat to Judicial Review and Human Rights

Harry Miller at the Royal Courts of Justice

Are you the sort of person who gets annoyed with ‘political correctness’? Are you fed up with ‘woke’ students and minority rights activists seeking to police your thoughts? Exasperated with civil servants attempting to social engineer us all?

Well then you had better get behind the campaign to save judicial review.

Last week Mr Justice Julian Knowles of the Administrative Division of the High Court handed down his judgment in R (Miller) v The College of Policing and another [2020] EWHC 225 (Admin). Continue reading “If You’re Worried About Political Correctness Going Too Far, then You Had Better Oppose The Threat to Judicial Review and Human Rights”