Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Blogs as Free Speech

This article by Tim Kevan and Aidan Ellis appeared on the Bar Council Blog dated 24/4/07
In many ways blogs are the ultimate expression of free speech. They do not have to pass through the sanitising mind of an editor. Instead they are published directly onto the internet, directly to the reader. The best political blogs combine personal insights with cutting political comment, some of which might be too forthright for the mainstream press.

In this context it is interesting to note that some bloggers are now proposing codes of conduct for blogging itself. They tend to espouse common sense. Bloggers are advised, for example, not to respond to offensive comments and not to say anything about someone that they would not be prepared to say in person. Of course, like the pirate code, these are guidelines rather than binding rules.

However, the bigger question arises as to whether we should be limiting something as important as free speech any further than is already done by the law of the land. It is already illegal, for example, to incite racial hatred, to defame a reputation and sometimes to breach a person’s privacy. Such laws have very often been brought about after years of debate and refined further through the mechanism of the common law. On the other hand, blogging codes of conduct are nothing of the sort. They exist to limit free speech far more than the checks imposed by law and for that reason we should beware.

Ultimately free speech is one of the most important rights that we have. It is fundamental to a functioning democracy. Allowing different views to be expressed helps us to arrive at our own opinion. That is why, subject to the law of the land, free speech should be protected, even in the blogosphere.


Transplanted Lawyer said...

Maybe I've missed your point.

Of course the government shouldn't restrict the contents of a blog, or any other website, beyond that which it could otherwise restrict speech in a newspaper or out in a public square (in the UK, I guess that would be Speaker's Corner). Bizarre or unpopular speech should be regulated by the audience, not by the government.

But bloggers urging one another to be polite, respectful, and not to feed the trolls is not the same thing as censorship. If people voluntarily agree that they will not say certain kinds of things, or at least not say them in a certain way, what's wrong with that? It could be a calculated appeal for more readers ("My blog is free of offensive speech, please read it") sort of like rating a movie or a television program for its violent and/or sexual content (or lack thereof).

jailhouselawyer said...

I am a great believer in freedom of speech. However, unlike some, Guido, for example, I don't believe that it is absolute.

Sometimes it is a fine line, sometimes it is crystal clear where the boundary lies. Sometimes, I admit I sail close to the wind, some would say I sail too close to it. Corrupt politicians are fair game as far as I am concerned, I give them no mercy and take no prisoners. Still, I keep to the topic.

I have experienced personal attacks on me by posters who are anonymous. I am thick skinned. I have not read anything that I have not heard in my 35 years of imprisonment so the barbs do not hurt. Rather, they are more akin to an unpleasant smell. We all break wind, but it is not that kind of smell that I am referring to. I am talking about raw sewage.

I don't subscribe to the view that I should not be allowed a public platform on account of my previous convictions. Instead of attacking what I say, some posters attack me for something that I was tried for in a court of law and have served my sentence for. I don't accept that I should now submit to a trial by media. My view is tackle the ball and not the player otherwise it is a foul.

When I started blogging, I decided I would be an open book just as I am in real life. I prefer no secrets. However, some hide behind screens in profiles and tracking them back provides no information worthy of note. What have they got to hide? I feel that my openness gives me a strength. WYSIWYG. If some people don't like that, though! Recently, in a confidential email, I was accused of not being upfront. That is, less than honest about my past. A judge and his family said that the last thing anybody can accuse me of being is less than honest. They felt that I am too honest for my own good. I don't believe that, however, I understand what they meant. Some people don't like to hear the truth because it hurts.

There are some blogs that I believe should be subject to the law of the land. The content on The Hitch, for example, I do not believe that the law is being enforced as it should. Redwatch is another site that I believe should face severe restrictions.

With the rest of the law, I think that this is an area open to interpretation. I predict that before long there will be test cases to see what those limits to freedom of speech are.

Karen McAtamney said...

Yes, I agree with this. The other problem in the area is that many people do not host their own blogs and the content of what they can post to the internet is regulated by the company providing them with a blogging service.

Companies, with cautious lawyers, tend to take a far more cautious approach to the law than most individuals (with only their own interests to consider) do. This results in de facto restrictions on content and conduct that may go far beyond the scope of the law. See, for instance, the storm on LiveJournal at the moment where various journals have apparantly been suspended for illegality on the advice of the company's lawyers.

This is not so much a criticism of a company's cautious business practice, but a general comment that for the internet to remain a good place for people to exercise their right to freedom of expression there must continue to be the effective ability for individuals to set up and run their own websites. The internet must remain decentralised and the barriers to entry mustn't be raised beyond the reach of the average person.