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Saturday, 17 November 2012

I will defend to the death your right to tweet

Rose Heilbron QC is one of Liverpool’s most famous lawyers. In a famous speech on Human Rights in 1950 she said –

‘We in this country have not achieved freedom of speech or freedom of conscience or liberty without having fought long and bitter battles for them over the centuries…Liberty does not happen overnight.’ *

Freedom of speech is a right of which we are rightly proud and, often, take for granted. But two recent cases raise the question about how it applies in the modern world of Social Media.

Adrian Smith is a Christian who is against same sex marriage. He expressed his views on his Facebook page calling it – ‘An equality too far.’ His Employers, Trafford Housing Trust, took disciplinary action against him and demoted him.

This is clearly an emotive subject. There are hugely differing opinions even among Christians. For what it’s worth I do not agree with him. But he has every right to express that opinion. Thankfully, the High Court took a similar view yesterday and found the employers to be in breach of contract. What type of society are we becoming when it becomes a disciplinary matter to say something we disagree with?

A similar situation arose earlier in the week. A teenager was arrested and detained for allegedly burning a poppy and posting a picture on Facebook.

Now most of us will find what did distasteful. But if we are to be a society which proudly protects free speech we cannot criminalise his actions. We can ignore his views, we can deplore them and present strong arguments against them. But he doesn’t become a criminal because he says something we don’t like.

I have commented on numerous occasions about the growing influence of both Facebook and Twitter and how they are transforming modern communication. But they still work against the background of free speech. We must avoid excessive policing of opinions. It is the first step towards Orwell’s terrifying ‘thought police.’

A French philosopher, possibly Voltaire, once said ‘I do not agree with what you said but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’

This is a right we should treasure and protect. We cannot limit it to things of which we approve.

*Rose Heilbron by Hilary Heilbron HART Press 2012

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