Another British Twitter Arrest

by Charles C. W. Cooke

The sun has risen in the East, which means that someone in Britain has probably been arrested for writing something silly on Twitter. From the BBC:

A teenager has been arrested by police investigating abuse of Team GB diver Tom Daley on Twitter.

After coming fourth in the men’s synchronised 10m platform diving event on Monday, the 18-year-old from Plymouth received a message telling him he had let down his father, Rob.

Rob Daley died in May 2011 from brain cancer.

A 17-year-old boy was arrested at a guest house in the Weymouth area on suspicion of malicious communications.

Dorset Police said they acted after being contacted by a member of the public at about 22:30 BST on Monday.

A spokesman was unable to confirm whether the arrest was specifically over the tweets to Daley or subsequent Twitter conversations with other users.

Daley responded to the tweet by posting: “After giving it my all…you get idiot’s sending me this…”

The user later posted a tweet apologising for the comment.

He said: “I’m sorry mate i just wanted you to win cause its the olympics I’m just annoyed we didn’t win I’m sorry tom accept my apology.”

He later added: “please i don’t want to be hated I’m just sorry you didn’t win i was rooting for you pal to do britain all proud just so upset.”

“Abuse”? “Malicious communications”?

Let us get the usual caveats out of the way: Yes, this was an insensitive and mean-spirited thing for the 17-year-old to say to someone who had lost his father and who had just suffered the heartbreak of losing an event at the Olympics for which he had so painstakingly prepared. No, that it was a mean thing to say isn’t remotely relevant to the case, because free speech is free speech. And, no, the fact that the author subsequently apologized has no bearing on the case whatsoever — his apology was a (welcome) private matter, and had he wished to stand by his initial comments that would have been his right.

Nor does this make any difference:

 A spokesman was unable to confirm whether the arrest was specifically over the tweets to Daley or subsequent Twitter conversations with other users.

Precisely why should that matter? This is not a “nuanced” case. It is not “difficult” or “tricky” or “thorny” or “complicated” or any of those words that the chin-stroking members of the British chattering classes like to use in faux-thoughtful overtures on BBC Radio 4, just before oh-so-predictably arguing for a government-imposed British speech code that happens exactly to proscribe what they personally find “offensive.” This is miles and miles and miles from the border of controversy: It is a slam-dunk violation of the unalienable speech rights of a free citizen of a putatively free country, even — no, especially — a free citizen who might well just be a nasty piece of work and might say things that a majority finds reprehensible.

Britain is now a country in which you can be arrested for writing racist tweets, for criticizing your local government on the Internet, for telling a policeman that his horse is “gay,” for shouting offensive things on a bus, for issuing leaflets condemning homosexuality, for evangelizing for Christianity on the street, for issuing leaflets evangelizing for atheism in an airport, and so on and so forth. And the press, as ever, is silent.

The laws that enable the police force to arrest and prosecute those who write mean-spirited, racist, or ugly things should be immediately repealed and the signed bills publicly burned at a ceremony expressly dedicated to restoring awareness of principles that Britain spread throughout the world but seems now incapable of defending at home. And rather than maintaining their silence, British conservatives and libertarians should be leading the charge; for they should realize that, without restoring this foundational liberty to its rightful place on the escutcheon, the others that have been progressively undermined alongside it are likely to remain cowering in the shadows of exile for a long time to come. Surely Timothy Garton-Ash and I cannot be the only two Brits to hold this view?

UPDATE: Some outlets, but not the BBC, are reporting that the tweeter threatened to “drown” Tom Daley. This naturally changes the issue, although I’m by no means convinced that a silly 17-year-old boy writing that he’ll drown a sports star who has just failed to win a medal is sufficient warrant for a police investigation.