Free Speech: The lifeblood of democracy

Posted by Bella Sankey on 12 October 2012

This week 19-year-old Matthew Woods was jailed for 12 weeks for drunkenly posting sick “jokes” about missing April Jones and Madeleine McCann on his own Facebook page. Prior to that, police had to arrest him for his own safety when an angry and vengeful mob turned up outside his home.

Woods pleaded guilty to sending – via a public electronic communications network – a “grossly offensive” message. He was prosecuted under section 127 of the Communications Act 2003, which outlaws the distribution of such messages. The presiding magistrate felt Woods’ abhorrent comments deserved the lengthiest sentence possible – because of the public outrage caused.

The case is not without recent precedent. When Liam Stacey posted a racist rant about stricken Bolton Wanderers footballer Fabrice Muamba on Twitter, he was jailed for eight weeks. And Paul Chambers was found guilty of sending a “menacing” tweet after vowing to “blow up” an airport that had been closed by snow – only for the conviction to be later quashed by the High Court.

To express unease at these decisions is not to excuse such behaviour and idiocy. Woods’ comments were grotesque and offensive. But does that mean he belongs behind bars? Thousands of deeply unpleasant things are said online every day. But should vile comments become a crime deserving of prison?

The law in this area is in complete disarray. Section 127, which Liberty has long been concerned about, is incredibly broadly-drafted, dangerously vague and was drawn up long before the emergence of social network platforms like Facebook and Twitter. And with the overlap of other laws dealing with harassment, incitement to hatred and public order, there’s an unhelpful piecemeal effect at play. The Director of Public Prosecutions has recently announced that the Crown Prosecution Service is going to produce guidance on the prosecution of social media messages and Liberty is going to advise on this. While there have actually been relatively few prosecutions for the use of social media, where cases have reached the courtroom conviction rates have been high and the sentences imposed severe.

While prosecutorial guidance is welcome it isn’t sufficient. We’ve long campaigned and lobbied to repeal and narrow the overbroad speech offences on the Statute book. We achieved a Home Office review of section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 earlier this year and we’re pushing for section 127 to be redrafted and significantly tightened. We need urgent review and to reform our outdated laws before the chilling effect is too keenly felt. Free speech is the lifeblood of democracy – parliamentarians should understand this and act.