Blasphemy, protest and the fight for free speech

You’ve probably noticed that there have been protests all over the world about a film called The Innocence of Muslims. These protests have resulted in the death of  the US ambassador to Libya and the deaths of at least nineteen people in Pakistan as well as others around the Middle East. Yesterday there were protests about the film in Birmingham, fortunately without the deaths that have accompanied protests in other countries. The film in question is laughably bad. It is ultra-low budget with bad acting and plastic toys as props. It is however extremely offensive to Muslims, and seems to be deliberately so.

The film seems to have acted as a trigger which has been added to all the anger already there about past interference and wars by the US and other western states. The protesters attacked US embassies and burned US flags perhaps because they blame America as a whole for the existence of the film. This is wrong however. The film makers are in a country where they have freedom of speech. They have the freedom to believe what they want, talk to who they want and say what they want and the government cannot lawfully stop them. The same applies to the group that wanted to burn the Koran  last year which caused similar uproar, and to the French magazine that printed cartoons of Muhammed. It also applies to protesters here. In fact in Birmingham here in the UK the police said this:

“West Midlands Police have no power to ban a static protest – in fact the right to protest peacefully is a sign of a healthy democracy and we have a positive duty to facilitate that right.”

(I wish our police forces were so enlightened about other protests.)

Under the European Convention on Human Rights here in Europe we have a specific set of freedoms around the topic of free speech: freedom of conscience and religion, (Article 9) freedom of expression, (Article 10) and freedom of assembly and association. (Article 11.)  It is exactly these same rights that apply to both those who wish to adhere to a religion and those who do not believe; to those who wish to speak publicly about their religion and to those who wish to publicly criticise it; to those who wish to protest on the streets and those who wish to protest in opposition to them.

There is an argument that when something such as this film is likely to  inflame such a vast and violent response that the freedom of expression of the film makers should be limited to prevent the response but that cannot happen. While we could ban idiots from provoking riots, banning idiots would only lead to oppression because someone has to decide who is the idiot, and that decision is not guaranteed to be trustworthy or correct.

These protesters need to realise that banning the film means violating freedom of expression, and that in doing so they are endangering their own rights to talk about their religion or to protest. They are not thinking in those terms, however, and merely wish to enforce their own religion at the cost of all other opinions. Preventing such a scenario is the very reason why in the US and Europe we  have freedom of expression that is meant to apply to everyone.

The protests about the film The Innocence of Muslims have taken a darker turn today. A Pakistan government minister Ghulam Ahmad Bilour has offered a bounty of a hundred thousand dollars for the murder of the makers of the film.

This is not freedom of expression or freedom of conscience and religion; it is the exact opposite. It is someone wishing to force their religious view on other people by any means necessary including murder.

In the end these people are only allowed to protest because they have the same freedoms that they demand be taken away from the film makers. (Or at least the protests are being tolerated, in countries where such freedoms are not enshrined in law.) It’s all or nothing. If I want freedom of speech then people I disagree with also have to have it. Demanding that they don’t would be stupid. Something that has escaped a great many people.


Protests in Birmingham against American anti-Islam film [Birmingham Mail]

YouTube under new pressure over anti-Muslim film [BBC]

Pakistan film protests: 19 die in Karachi and Peshawar [BBC]

Anti-Islam film: Pakistan minister offers bounty [BBC]


Public Communications Networks and Menacing Messages

This morning Paul Chambers won his #TwitterJokeTrial appeal and was acquitted of sending a menacing tweet under the communications act 2003. Paul had been found guilty of sending by a public electronic communication network a message of a “menacing character” contrary to s.127(1)(a) and (3) of the Communications Act 2003. The tweet in question read as follows:

“Crap! Robin Hood Airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together, otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!!”

For those who haven’t been following the case, Paul’s solicitor, David Allen Green, has written the background for New Statesman.

The High Court overturned the conviction on the basis that the tweet was not menacing, however the judge found that twitter IS a public communications network and is therefore subject to the communications act 2003. While I celebrate the decision of the court I disagree in part with their reasoning.

A key part of the original defence was that Twitter was not a public communications network, because a tweet read outside of the context of being a follower of the tweeter is content rather than a message.  I think this point was perhaps misunderstood by all sides. I would not argue that Twitter is not a public communications network, but that Twitter is both a public communications network and something more. Tweets that are not aimed at any one individual are a different usage which requires different treatment to that specified in the Communications Act 2003 and the original 1935 act that it was based on.

Paragraph 25 of the judgement says:

25. In our judgment, whether one reads the “tweet” at a time when it was read as “content” rather than “message”, at the time when it was posted it was indeed “a message” sent by an electronic communications service for the purposes of s.127(1). Accordingly “Twitter” falls within its ambit.

A tweet addressed to to one or more people with an @ mention is a message to those people. However, a tweet which is not addressed to anyone can be expected to be read by some or all followers of the person who makes the tweet. In general it would not be seen by those outside of this group unless either the tweet is “retweeted” – copied to the followers of one of the readers – or someone has searched through twitter for key words like “Robin Hood Airport” as happened in this case. The outsider had to make an effort to find it through search or by looking at the person’s profile. This is more like speaking in a group in a pub – what you say is meant for the group but others could stand nearby and listen too.

I believe that it is important that the difference in context between these types of tweets should be understood by the legal system. People frequently make jokey threats and statements, but there is a vast difference between making such a comment in the context of a group, and in aiming said comment as a message at the person or organisation who is the subject of those threats. Had Paul Chambers tweeted his statement directly to Robin Hood Airport then it would clearly have been a threat, but he did not do that. Instead he tweeted it to his followers who presumably would laugh or commiserate or both.

As to why it is important that people can joke around with ideas like bomb threats and suchlike, these tweets from Edwina Currie are a good demonstration. If Paul Chambers’ conviction had been upheld then Currie would be guilty of the same offence.

For now the important thing to note from the case is that as of this ruling, anything that you type on social networks will be subject to the Communications Act 2003 and anything considered menacing could be a criminal offence.

Further Reading

The appeal judgement in full [PDF]

Twitter joke trial: Paul Chambers wins high court challenge to conviction [Guardian]

Edwina Currie’s Comedy Connections [Storify]

Jesus and Mo

Click here if you want to see an image of Mohamed

(By clicking you agree that you want to see it.)

Yes, I have, on this server, an image from Jesus and Mo. I don’t particularly care for the comic, and I don’t like the artwork. However, I have put this picture here for one reason. This week, a 17 year old was forced to remove this image from his Facebook profile by his school in Cardiff. He put it there in solidarity with The Atheist, Secular, and Humanist Society at University College London, who were themselves forced to take it down from their Facebook page by their university.

In reaction to Rhys having this image on Facebook, he was directly harassed by people at his school and threatened with violence.

Let me make this clear. Not everyone is a Christian. Not everyone is a Muslim. People who aren’t part of a religion do not have to live by the rules of that religion. I can have a picture of Mohamed if I want (actually I can’t because no one knows what he looks like) because I am not a muslim.

More than that, people who are free to practice their religion and to say the things that they want to are only able to exercise this freedom because everyone else is. I can’t begin to express how stupid those people are that exercise their own freedom of speech to demand that someone else doesn’t have it. If you don’t like free speech, don’t use it.

Got it? No, I didn’t think so.


Freedom to be offended

Freedom of speech. An absolutely essential human right, and yet it seems to be such a difficult concept for many to grasp. People think free speech applies to themselves and no one else. Anyone that opposes them is fair game to be silenced.

To paraphrase Morbo the news monster, “Censorship does not work like that!”

According to reports, yesterday Facebook removed the EDL’s page. The EDL Facebook page had been “Liked” by some 80,000 people, and was frequently home to comments showing racist, bigoted views and discussing some quite disgusting concepts and behaviour. Even so, I cannot celebrate its removal. How is it right that people on the left complain when Facebook pages for anti-cuts protests and events are removed, yet celebrate when the same thing happens to the EDL?

In discussions about this some people have pointed out that the EDL page hosted discussions of illegal behaviour. It might have done. “Hate speech” is now illegal in the UK. Beating up people and harassment are illegal too. But is it right to shut down discussions, even of illegal behaviour? That sounds like thought crime to me. We have a right to freedom of association, to freedom of religion, and freedom of speech. By extension, we have a right to hold whatever opinions we want, even if they are repellent to most people. Surely freedom to associate with whoever we like must mean that we have freedom to discuss whatever we like? How can discussion of a crime be a crime? Even if someone is discussing plans for a crime, they have not actually done anything, and I believe they should not be arrested until they show that they are about to commit those actions and not just fantasise about them.

I must also point out that the various Facebook pages set up to organise anti-cuts protests have also sometimes discussed illegal behaviour. Civil disobedience in various forms often means breaking the law – by definition illegal! Yet people rail against the removal of these pages by Facebook but demand the removal of the EDL page. It does not work like that!

The issue of government censorship versus private censorship is a problem. Facebook is a privately owned platform and many people are quick to point out that freedom of speech does not apply as everyone that uses it had in theory to agree to the terms and conditions. This is true, but while in law obligations to facilitate free speech usually only apply to government, I think when a service becomes as large as Facebook and a de-facto standard, different rules must apply. While we have private services that host so much public discourse, this is something that we must address. I suspect that censorship on private services happens as much out of a fear of being sued as of a desire to shut down opposing views.

I worry that here in the UK we are losing our freedom of speech. We have the European Convention of Human Rights, but right-wing politicians like to blame it for all our ills and demand that we scrap it. Now we have laws against hate speech, and I can see the reasons for preventing harassment and bullying, but if those are already crimes, why do we need laws to make it illegal to voice disagreement with someone?

Ultimately, freedom of speech applies to all or it applies to no one. There is no middle ground. If someone decides to censor what some people say, then there is no guarantee that anything at all can be said. Someone somewhere has to make the decision on what to censor, and that decision will be shaped by their own opinions and political views. The alternative to freedom of speech is suppression of dissenting views by whoever is the most powerful. If you have a view that the establishment doesn’t like, you cannot celebrate censorship without endangering your own cause.