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I can save it a bucketload of time by telling it right now when charges should be brought against web-users for speech-based affrays: Never. Ever.
Speech is either free or it isn’t. And if it is, then that means everyone must have it—not just nice people, but also nasty people; not just the right-on, but also the racist; not just well-educated judges who use their free speech to spout BS about how abhorrent certain jokes are, but also immature tweeters, Facebook saddos, and unpopular bloggers who use their free speech to insult minorities or make bad gags about missing girls.
Granting the state the power to determine what is abhorrent and what is acceptable, which thoughts may be expressed publicly and which may not, is a dangerous game. At the moment, the state might “only” be locking up racist joke-tellers or teenage buffoons, but who knows who else might fall foul of today’s self-styled shapers of public morality. Blasphemers, perhaps? Queen Elizabeth-bashers? Sexist porno makers?
Allowing the state to determine the rightness and acceptability of words and ideas doesn’t only lead to gobsmacking levels of censorious authoritarianism—it also robs us, the public, of our right and our responsibility to work out what is true and to challenge what feels like dross in the arena of public debate. As John Milton put it 350 years ago, “Let Truth and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?”
The most worrying thing in Britain right now is the rise of the idea that individuals may be rightfully harassed and punished by the state if they hold views that are “not acceptable to the overwhelming majority of people,” as was said of the racist blogger.
That’s the end of eccentricity right there, of any element of danger and daring in public discourse. If being unpopular is seen as a sufficient justification for being arrested and put on trial, then who will ever dare put their neck on the line and say controversial, offensive, properly interesting things? The top-down enforcement of thought-policing doesn’t only mean we will see fewer racist ramblings and less teenage stupidity—it also means there’ll be less intellectual risk-taking, and a stifling culture of back-watching conformism.
Besides, society has no right to punish people just because the overwhelming majority of people don’t like what they say, as John Stuart Mill argued decades ago: “If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.” Absolutely. Free all Britain’s tweeters, t-shirt wearers, and bloggers now!