Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Free Speech and Twitter

There has been a successful criminal prosecution in the UK for a tweet. The case in question concerns Paul Chambers, who, when stuck in an airport in January during snowfalls tweeted that the airport had a week to get everything together or he would be "blowing the airport sky high". After the airport became aware of the tweet he was arrested on suspicion of making a bomb hoax but eventually prosecuted under a law making it an offence to send "indecent, obscene or menacing" messages over a public electronic communications network.

Mr Chambers' conviction raises questions about free speech. Tweets are public in a similar way to blog postings. When a tweet is sent out you have no control over who will read it or what interpretation will be placed on what you have written. This is true for blogs unless you explicitly set them up to be private networks. Given Mr Chambers' conviction I wouldn't like to make statements of annoyance concerning inconvenience on a blog posting since these could clearly be misconstrued and lead to prosecution!

More seriously the line between speech and action is here interestingly brought into question. Clearly some forms of speech and written comment are classed as effectively being equivalent to actions whilst others are not and there is some leeway here. Writing: "I am going to run into a theatre and shout 'fire'!" is not commonly regarded as equivalent to actually going to the theatre and performing said action and nor even can the act of writing the said comment be taken necessarily to entail that the said action will follow. Similarly, it would seem curious to interpret Mr Chambers' tweet as a real statement of intent.

Nonetheless other types of statement that are made either in speech or writing are effectively equivalent to actions. So racially offensive speech and writing tends to be viewed as provocative in the sense that it expresses an intention to degrade someone in such a way that there is, in some sense, "violence" in the speech act itself. The core problem with this concerns which types of speech act fit within the said definition. So pornography has been the source of heated debates, for example, though, it has to be said, that this mainly concerns heterosexual pornography aimed at heterosexual men. Such pornography, it is suggested, demeans women in much the way racially offensive speech degrades minority racial groups. The resistance to this does not merely centre on problems concerning art works and the distinction between erotica and porn.

What both these examples, in any case, bring into view is that the boundary between speech (interpreted in the wide sense to include writing and even pictorial representation) and action is not clearly fixed. So does Mr Chambers' tweet really cross this line? It doesn't strike me that it does since the context of the tweet in question is clearly expressed within it. This would provide one boundary line for protection of tweets in certain circumstances. However, such a boundary might well not be easy to draw and what does emerge from this is the peculiarity of media that are open to mass contributions. Previous forms of media, such as newspapers and television, were based only on selective contributions from people specially employed to make them. As such, contributors to these media were trained in, amongst other things, libel law and laws that, for various reasons, regulated free speech. With the advent of mass media that are open in terms of contribution a new situation arises. I am sure Mr Chambers had no desire to cause problems and that he had no notion of controlling his expression in relation to potential consequences concerning its interpretation. I am equally sure he will not tweet again so innocently. What the case does suggest is that the arrival of such new media has created a whole new set of problems concerning the regulation of speech and that this should lead to the need for wide public discussion and consultation concerning what really can and cannot be said on them and how the boundary concerning this should be drawn. Unless there is some such move then the depredations of the Digital Economy Bill are likely to be visited widely across the world with untold casualties. 

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