Recently in the UK a man has been found guilty of threatening behaviour (or something of that ilk, I can’t quote the precise details, forgive me!) because he tweeted a comment about blowing up an airport. It’s created a storm of protest on Twitter, with many people re-tweeting the remark with #iamspartacus as a gesture of support. This was a comment made in anger and shared with friends, not a threat made to the airport or its staff, but apparently the context isn’t important, it still counts as ‘menacing’. Unhelpfully ‘menacing’ isn’t a term that apparently has much definition under UK law.
There are a number of things to be worried about here. Firstly, that words typed are being taken as proof of intention. Speaking as someone who spends a lot of time making things up, this troubles me. Lots of people make things up – for humour, for dramatic effect, to get the point across. “Do that again and I’ll kill you,” is a statement frequently made without any actual intent to kill, so far as I can tell. “I’m dead on my feet’ is seldom literally true. “I’d kill for a coffee” is not usually a plan for violence. But in theory, any such expression could be taken as a statement of intent.
Then there’s the issue of irony, which we Brits are supposed to be good at. Irony is the fine art of saying something you really don’t mean, in order to make a point. Comics do it all the time. It’s a powerful political tool for people on the sidelines especially. Satire is a traditional Druid weapon as well. If the legal system cannot comprehend context, it’s not going to be able to handle irony. Is “I was being ironic” any kind of legal defence? I really hope we don’t get to find out, and when I say that, I promise you I am not being even the teensiest bit ironic. Please, let’s not go there.
The other side of this issue for me is about being able to use carelessness as a defence. Plenty of people say things in the heat of the moment that they do not mean “I’ll bloody kill you for that” being a common one. Or we speak in thoughtless hyperbole. “I could eat a horse.” Most of the time it’s not a problem, but sometimes it is, and careless speech causes pain, misunderstanding and difficulty. I do not think that negligence is any kind of excuse. We have control over our mouths and fingers, most of us, we are able to think about what we type, or say, and we should not run off with either, paying no regard to the impact our words might have. The Celts considered good speech to be a virtue, and that means not mouthing off saying things you don’t mean.
I am very much an advocate of free speech. Without freedom of expression, there can be no equality, no justice, and no other kind of freedoms whatsoever. With freedom comes responsibility, and if words are used as weapons, then people have to take the consequences. Had the twitter chap phoned up some poor soul at the airport and told them he was so cross he’d blow the place sky high then sure, he’d need a serious slap on the wrist there. But that wasn’t what happened. He typed carelessly. He may, in fact have been making a sort of joke. That he didn’t mean any harm is blindingly obvious to anyone with half a brain.
We all of us have a responsibility to be clear in our speech and disciplined enough not to say very stupid things in moments of anger or frustration. What you do and say under pressure is the real measure of a person, I think. But at the same time, we need edgy humour and uncomfortable jokes. We need to push the boundaries, and it needs to be ok to be ironic, or make people uneasy. And surely, as a country, we have people far more in need of court time than some bloke who posts an ill considered remark on a social networking site. Anyone who disagrees should be locked in a room and made to watch the fifth Harry Potter, A Clockwork Orange, and Minority Report over and over until they actually get the point.