All My Little Words

Of Free Speech and Free Markets

Posted in Domestic Policy, Human Rights, Law and Order, Politics by nickchristian on April 2, 2012

As those who know me would attest, I am a dyed in the wool lefty, in the sense that I want life to be better for everyone, not just those that can afford it. I think government can be a force for good in that respect; a place where, to quote the West Wing, “people come together and where no one gets left behind.” What that doesn’t mean is that I think the state should be involved in every aspect of everyone’s life in order to make it so. I think a capitalistic society, where it works supports that goal better than the state but where there are gaps – where capitalism fails which, undeniably, it often does – government has a duty to step in.

Simply put I believe the role of government is to regulate imperfect markets. Where something society needs is undervalued the government has a duty to step in and supply it out of public funds. Where something something society doesn’t need is oversupplied, or supplied at a cost to society that doesn’t accurately reflect its value, government has a responsibility to tax it to the point where it pays for itself or supply is reduced. Pollution is one such example, road congestion another.

Where markets work perfectly however, or close to perfectly, the government should keep as far away as possible. Online speech is one such market.

I agree with Thomas Hammarberg, the European Council’s commissioner for human rights, that Liam Stacey should not have received a prison sentence for tweeting racist comments about Fabrice Muamba, following the Bolton player’s recent on-pitch collapse. I *think* most of last Thursday’s Question Time panel at least saw the 56 day sentence as excessive as well.

Where I suspect I stand alone, or if not alone then certainly in a minority, is in my belief that he should not have been arrested or prosecuted at all.

I can say, with little concern for contradiction, that Liam Stacey is a dumb racist fuck. Yet as confident as I am in that assertion, I don’t think that being a dumb racist fuck should be a crime. Not that it should go without sanction, just that I don’t think the state should be responsible. It’s largely accepted that much of what is said in an offhand way in social networking forums – be they Twitter, Facebook, blogs or wherever – is subject to far fewer filters of thought than what we might say in other forms, but probably still more than what might be said in a pub with friends. The main differences lie in the potential reach of these unthinking utterances, the speed with which they can be circulated and the futility of an attempted retraction. Racist fucks like Liam Stacey are often forced to learn this the hard way, but the hard way should not involve a prison sentence.

The hard way should be when it’s picked up on by the likes of Stan Collymore, a former footballer and current radio presenter who has taken it upon himself to lead a crusade – a brave and noble one in my opinion – against online bigotry. Collymore regularly retweets the most offensive comments of those people who think a computer screen and internet connection serve as a protective shield against responsibility for their words. When Liam Stacey found himself the recipient of a barrage of condemnatory replies, the subject of a host of online and print articles about his dumb racist fuck-ness, as well as likely, if not inevitable, disciplinary action from Swansea University, he doubtless became very rapidly aware of quite how unacceptable it is to hold such views, let alone be so publicly proud of them. Does anyone really think that a criminal conviction, and the accompanying prison sentence, is going to be a higher price to pay than the pariah status he will find himself with upon his release? That all of his friends, family, colleagues and peers (not to mention pretty much anyone who meets him in the foreseeable future) will be unable to disassociate him with his racist tweets for a very long time is a far greater punishment than any the state can bestow. This is, in my opinion, the perfect example of the self-regulating market.

What we say online is, for many barely indistinguishable, from what we think and government regulation of online speech is therefore dangerously close to regulation of thought. By widely publicising these public displays of intolerance, ignorance and offence Stan Collymore, amongst others, has shown how it can be dealt with far more effectively through the court of public opinion. The law need not get involved.

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