UK Prosecutors Finally Acknowledge The Need For A Real Discussion About Free Speech Online

from the he-said-what??? dept

As Tim Cushing rightly noted earlier this week, the UK’s “Free Speech” laws are more about the many things you can’t say. As if to back up that view, in the last few days, there’s been yet another case of somebody being arrested there for “an offensive Facebook page.”

At this point, you might have written off the UK and its laws as a hopeless case, and made a mental note not to say anything rude if you ever go there. If so, you would probably assume that a new statement about social media prosecutions in a post from the UK’s Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), on the official blog of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), is just more of the same. Amazingly, it’s not.

It relates to yet another, earlier, case where “a homophobic message” was posted to Twitter. Surprisingly, perhaps, given the UK’s track record here, the authorities decided not to prosecute the person involved. The new blog post explains this decision, offering a series of eminently sensible reasons why it would have been inappropriate in the circumstances:

This was, in essence, a one-off offensive Twitter message, intended for family and friends, which made its way into the public domain. It was not intended to reach Mr Daley or Mr Waterfield [the subjects of the message], it was not part of a campaign, it was not intended to incite others and Mr Thomas [the sender] removed it reasonably swiftly and has expressed remorse.

Not content with this unexpected outbreak of good sense, the UK’s DPP goes on to make some general observations that are equally notable:

This case is one of a growing number involving the use of social media that the CPS has had to consider. There are likely to be many more. The recent increase in the use of social media has been profound. It is estimated that on Twitter alone there are 340 million messages sent daily. And the context in which this interactive social media dialogue takes place is quite different to the context in which other communications take place. Access to social media is ubiquitous and instantaneous. Banter, jokes and offensive comment are commonplace and often spontaneous. Communications intended for a few may reach millions.

Well, indeed. And thus:

To ensure that CPS decision-making in these difficult cases is clear and consistent, I intend to issue guidelines on social media cases for prosecutors. These will assist them in deciding whether criminal charges should be brought in the cases that arise for their consideration. In the first instance, the CPS will draft interim guidelines. There will then be a wide public consultation before final guidelines are published. As part of that process, I intend to hold a series of roundtable meetings with campaigners, media lawyers, academics, social media experts and law enforcement bodies to ensure that the guidelines are as fully informed as possible.

He concludes with words that echo what many people in the UK have been thinking for last few years:

In my view, the time has come for an informed debate about the boundaries of free speech in an age of social media.

Pity it hasn’t happened sooner, but better late then never….

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Comments on “UK Prosecutors Finally Acknowledge The Need For A Real Discussion About Free Speech Online”

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Duke (profile) says:


In my view, the time has come for an informed debate about the boundaries of free speech in an age of social media.

Well that’s nice. So what are you going to do about that, Mister DPP? Have a public consultation? Invite interested parties to discussion groups? Open up some sort of forum for comments? Apparently not.

Of course, he’s completely wrong. The time for an informed debate about the boundaries of free speech in an age of social media was quite a few years ago. And we had it. Without him. Not just debating the issues over things like the Twitter Joke Trial, or “offensive” Facebook pages, but how free speech is impacted by laws on copyright, defamation, child abuse, contempt of court, the Olympics, privacy, terrorism, mass-surveillance, religious and political freedom, pornography, suicide… and that’s just the stuff I remember dealing with over the last few months.

This is the DPP; the person responsible for all public prosecutions within the jurisdiction. He issues guidance on when to prosecute, he is one of the most powerful people in the country when it comes to abusive limitations on free speech (judges and lawyers can work to throw cases out, but the CPS and police are the ones able to destroy lives before it gets that far). He should be actually getting involved with debates, opening up discussions to the public, commissioning studies… all those things good, transparent government agencies are supposed to do. Not writing a blog post explaining why he has (inconsistently) decided not to bring this particular prosecution (perhaps due to the guy being popular/rich enough to afford good lawyers).

Calling for an informed debate that has already been going on for several years doesn’t strike me as particularly “informed”. Still, at least the CPS has finally noticed that there are some issues with free speech online, and some people might want to talk about it. Only a decade or so behind the rest of us…

Anonymous Coward says:

That is pretty sad considering it’s not illegal to be an asshole. I mean really, who in the hell do these people think they are? If we all took shit said online seriously we would most likely lose our minds and plus there will always be someone out there to troll no matter what the circumstances may be. I’ve dealt with people talking shit about dead family plenty of times over the years. What do I do? I ignore them or tell them to F off because their opinion is worthless to me.

I’m not defending him because he’s a fucking scumbag to be talking shit like that but it’s supposed to be his right to talk like that if he wants to.
Shitting on freedom like that is completely fucking absurd. If it was just non police I doubt he would have been in trouble.

I have news for you working for the law DOES NOT put you above it mother fuckers. Karma is a bitch so keep abusing it and it will come back to bite you in the ass someday.

saulgoode (profile) says:

Above his pay grade

I am not that familiar with U.K. government (being from the U.S.) but it seems to me that if those charged with prosecuting a law find themselves unable to do so in an effectual, just, and nondiscriminatory manner then they should report their problems to those enacting the laws.

Establishing guidelines for prosecutors to follow may provide for greater consistency in enforcing the law, but it does little to instruct the people who are expected to follow it on what exactly the law is.

Howard Carson (profile) says:

Tweets and the UK Crown Prosecutors Office

Someone described a future in which every thief, thug and criminal in the UK will eventually have free rein to do as they please because the CPS will be inundated by millions of prosecutions of common citizens who make incautious tweets. Every idiotic pursuit of a citizen’s casual political, social, cultural or economic criticism, takes a little bit more of the CPS’ attention away from real crime.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Tweets and the UK Crown Prosecutors Office

It is very surprising that this is not already the case. Shouldn’t there already be thousands of little micro-statements online in Britain that are offensive, racist or whatever? Surely the nation is at least as productively dirty-minded as the denizens of Wall Street Journal blogs, or any other such US forum full of name-calling and clamor.

Yet only a handful of prosecutions, it appears.

This DPP’s sudden wish for a serious, principled debate and “…guidelines … for prosecutors…” reminds us that every Briton has a Constitution-shaped hole (to paraphrase Pascal).

Anonymous Coward of Esteemed Trolling (profile) says:

The right to "not be Offended" = win ?

First we should lock up…

Christians who tell me…
“I will spend eternity in excruciating pain because of my beliefs”
“I am a lowlife sinner, because of my beliefs”
They are extremely offensive remarks, worse than a slur word.

failing that…
The right, “not to be Offended”, should not exist

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