Those who have been following my reporting on the worrying trend toward abridgment of free speech in Britain will know that I stand with the American Founding Fathers — and the philosophers that fed them — in considering freedom of speech to be a right that does not require justification on practical grounds to deserve strong protection. The utilitarian arguments in its favor, strong as they are, must inevitably be secondary and subordinate, given that the state has no right to get involved in the area at all; firstly, because the government’s power should be limited, its only purpose being to protect our preexisting liberty, and secondly because the government is us — and, as Jefferson put it, “fallible men” are “governed by bad passions, by private as well as public reasons.” It does not do to give the state the capacity to define what is and what is not acceptable discourse.
That is not to say, however, that there are no practical concerns. Heretofore, those arrested in Britain have been “guilty” of offending others: Liam Stacey and James Perch wrote obnoxious things about professional footballers on Twitter; the five Muslims from Derby distributed leaflets criticizing homosexuality; and the rest of the cast was guilty either of reading from the Bible in public or of criticizing it. In response to these outrages, the British have been at best indifferent, and at worst supportive. The Liam Stacey case did get some attention on Twitter, but most who commented expressed pleasure that he had been put away. The British press could barely contain its indifference. A few suggested that the sentencing was a touch harsh, but as I noted at the time, “nobody cited principle. Nobody channeled John Stuart Mill. This is a disgrace, for while the young man sitting in the cell is small fry, the liberty being compromised in his name is not.”
This week was the first in modern memory that a British citizen was arrested and convicted for criticizing the government. A blogger who goes by the name of “Olly Cromwell” wrote two offensive tweets about the local council and was subsequently arrested and prosecuted under the 2003 Communications Act for “Harrassment” and “Incitement to commit criminal damage.” His tweets read:
Which c*** lives in a house like this. Answers on a postcard to #bexleycouncil”
It’s silly posting a picture of a house on Twitter without an address, that will come later. Please feel free to post actual s***.
Olly did not follow up on his tweets and he named no names. The picture that he included with the first tweet was of a cookie-cutter house, and he gave no indication as to its whereabouts. At most, Olly should have been respectfully asked to remove the picture, and informed that if he carried out the invitation at the end of the second tweet, he would be breaking the law. But such action would presume that it was the picture and the suggestion that others “post actual s***” that vexed authorities. From the details of the case — which has been covered most comprehensively by a left-leaning Liberal Democrat who blogs about local politics — it was, actually the use of the C-word that did the damage. As it happens, this is not the first time that Olly has been targeted for criticizing Bexley’s government. In 2010, he,
received a letter from his blog hosting company asking him to amend the foul language on his website or it would be removed. The hosting company said that they were acting on the instructions of the Metropolitan police. When Olly asked for the correspondence on this issue it was refused. Olly removed the site temporarily and then moved his website to an offshore hosting account.
When he subsequently tried to attend a later meeting, Olly was forcibly removed from the council chamber for attempting to film the meeting. There are no rules at the council which prohibit Olly or anyone else from doing this yet the council called the police when Olly tried to do so and had him removed.
In April 2010, Olly (who is a blogger who until now has spent most of his blogging time and space ranting about corrupt politicians lining their pockets in one way or another), received a ’prevention of harassment letter’ from the Metropolitan Police regarding his blog. The letter stated:
“It has been brought to Police attention that you have been placing blogs on the Bexley is Bonkers website and emailing Bexleyheath Councillors direct criticising them both on a personal level and the way the council is run’
The content and tone of this communication from you has caused the considerable alarm and must stop.”
There’s that “considerable alarm” phrase again. It crops up quite a lot in British free-speech cases these days. In fact, Olly hadn’t been posting on the “Bexley is Bonkers” website at all, but that is besides the point. He should be able to post whatever criticism he wants on there without being contacted by the police. That a British citizen was instructed by the police to remove a website because it contained foul language aimed at government employees is a disgrace.
Demonstrating that what the authorities are really worried about is Olly’s words, they imposed a restraining order on him that — wait for it — came into effect before his trial. This order stipulated that he was:
Not to own, operate or write on a website or social media any criticisms of Bexley Council
Not to contact the victim directly or indirectly
Not to write directly or indirectly about Bexley Councillors on any site.
Not to refer to the victim directly or indirectly on any site
And, finally, the prosecution showed their true colors, by
seeking a custodial sentence with the court papers showing a request for 45 days for each letter in the ‘C’ word being requested.
That’s 180 days, or half a year for writing rude things about the government. (One can only suppose that Olly is grateful for the 140 character limit on Twitter, and pleased that he didn’t use a longer expletive.)
The full account contains further unacceptable practices, including being arrested for supposedly breaching bail conditions that were never in fact violated after being reported by a local councillor, and being tried in Bexley rather than elsewhere despite promises that his trial would be held in a neighboring town to avoid a conflict of interest. Olly is very probably over-zealous and he pushed at a line. In particular, one would never recommend putting pictures of someone’s house on Twitter, nor using the C-word to describe them. But the zeal with which he was prosecuted is alarming, as is the way that local government officials have been able to employ the law so harshly to punish one of their critics. In cases such as these, all doubt should go in favor of the defendant and all caution should be observed on the side of free speech. Precisely the opposite was the case in Bexley this week, and it vindicates those of us who have claimed all along that, when you pass laws designed to protect people from being hurt and give them the capacity to define offense, these laws will very quickly be employed to protect the powerful and the collective at the expensive of the individual.