Freedom of speech and Old Holborn
So we all know about last week’s thrashing around of Liverpool vs. Old Holborn. I won’t repeat the whole history, there’s a decent summary here by the Fat Councillor.
For me, the argument goes like this.
Say what you want, to anyone, at any time. Want to walk up to the mad bloke in the pub and declare that his wife sucked worse last night than his dog? Fine. You have the absolute right to do this.
You also have the absolute responsibility to account for your own actions. If you go out of your way to behave like an absolute cunt, then sooner or later someone will, as Father Woland put it, take you out with a snooker ball in a sock. Or alternatively, if you go around wanking out bees, then you best be ready for cock stings.
Anyway, though, this particular initial point is rather obvious. If we can’t agree that there is a simple balance of absolute right and absolute responsibility, then you may as well stop reading now; the point is basic enough that it simply takes us round in circles. (“I don’t like what he said”/ “Well he’s taking responsibility for it”/ “Yes but I still don’t like it”/ “etc.”)
The real point is this. Who, ultimately, enforces the responsibility.
Old Holborn evidently goes out of his way to be a complete cunt in a variety of fashions. This, itself, is not against the law. Critically though, he does not force anyone to listen. Blogs may be left unread, Twitter has unfollow, and it also has blocks. If you choose not to listen, you would not know of his existence. Be offended if you wish, knock yourself out, but don’t expect anyone to care that you are – I’ll come to the legal boundaries in a bit. (In general though, if you would have someone, presumably the State on your behalf, prevent outright some speech simply because you personally happen to find it completely beyond the pale, then you need to take a long hard look at yourself.)
His attackers, though, apparently behaved differently. Having taken offence (as is their right), it seems they additionally chose to :
- take responsibility to act themselves;
- act with actual physical threats and violence (see Fat Councillor’s blog in the rubric above);
- take those threats to a variety of random bystanders (family, workplace, and so on);
Or put another way, those who took offence would choose, by apparent threat of violence, to force others to hold to their individual view. This is the key difference between what Old Holborn did and what appears to have been done at him.
The evidence for all this is well in the public domain; I won’t repeat here, to avoid queering the pitch for ongoing legal actions. (I qualify with “apparently” simply because it’s all sub-judice &c.). I will, though, highlight the rank idiocy of some of those involved via a minor threat I myself received, as a bystander – where the threat helpfully CC’d Essex Police into the same tweet. *insert slow hand-clap here*
(As an aside, there’s the case of Sir Olly C. Here, the end-game was (simply speaking) that the law, not the populace or Olly, decided that “cunt” was not grossly offensive. Whether or not there should be any laws at all determining anything “grossly offensive”, is a separate question. And BTW, the question of offence itself is not the same as that of, say, racial abuse or incitement to hatred.)
So the real problem here, is not any offence itself. Instead, the problem is a presumption of an absolute right not to be offended, and also that of impugnity of vigilante action in response to any perceived offence. The real position is, simply, the absolute right to speak vs the absolute responsibility to account for it under the law.
Free speech is, and must be, an absolute. Chew out the scouse? Fine, expect them to throw darts at you. Send a death threat dart? Fine also, but expect to get nicked for it. And the latter is simply and quantifiably a more serious matter in the eyes of the law.