Freedom of speech? It's not as simple as that...

Lorcan Mullan joins the debate

Freedom of speech is a right that any democratic country prides itself upon and is usually one of the most prized and envied freedoms of any country under genuine fascistic rule. Though it doesn’t mean we can sit in the middle of a packed cinema and scream ‘Fire! Fire! There’s a bloody fire!’ when there is no actual fire.

There would be mass hysteria and a decent chance people will be hurt in the trampling that will ensue. The reason for any anarchy and unrest in that situation is solely based on something someone has said. Their words have had a cost and they were said with the intention to cause harm. As a result they need to be punished by the criminal justice system.

Let’s take these two high profile cases that have come up in recent days. Azhar Ahmed commented that ‘all soldiers should die and go to hell’” and Matthew Woods made bad jokes about April Jones and Madeline McCann.

The Paul Chambers Twitter trial seemed to be the start of all this madness and whilst he seems to have had the last laugh in the appeal courts I don’t think Ahmed or Woods can expect similar high profile endorsements if they were to appeal their sentences. Of course it’s all about context. It’s hard to feel sorry for those two in the same way it’s harder to feel sorry for a man punched in the face if he’s screamed unprovoked abuse into the puncher a few moments earlier against someone getting their lights knocked out for accidentally bumping into a drunk man who drops his 15th pint of the night.

Ahmed almost certainly thought it was righteous indignation that would vindicate his opinions on the troops, but instead it was read by a parent of a recently deceased trooper and he finds himself paying a fine and forced to 240 hours of community service. Woods has been jailed for 12 weeks.

Let’s look at the other high profile case: Justin Lee Collins has also been fined and forced to perform positive service for the community (many who have seen his TV output would suggest that would be a first). The crux of the case was that Collins had inflicted emotional abuse upon Anna Larke. Not physical abuse. So if his abuse was never manifested in physical violence the abuse she received would have revolved around what was said to her – hurtful, cruel words that struck fear into her and led to a torrid few months in a chapter of her life she will hopefully feel has ended with this verdict.

Let’s forget about Collins for now and ask how does this affect comedy? I fear for the day that a comedian has to take the stand to defend their stand-up. It will probably come sooner rather than later – perhaps another Christian Voice vs. Stewart Lee-like debacle will take place with character witnesses such as Peter Hitchens and Jerry Sadowitz being called by both sides and Michael Portillo and Andrew Neil will try their hardest not to talk down to whichever professional chuckle-monger they book to converse with after a bizarrely directed pre-recorded package they present in a state of mild bemusement.

Let’s say Frankie Boyle had been put on trial for his joke about Katie Price and her son. I think we can all agree that Frankie Boyle intentionally pushes the perception of what can be said – at least what can be broadcast and theoretically available to every person with a television. I think if brought to trial the majority of people would err on the side of ‘I disagree with what you have said (as you probably do yourself) but I will defend your right to say it’ and he would be found innocent.

However, what if Boyle had spotted Katie Price in a park with her son, ran up to the pair of them and screamed the joke into their face. As they tried to walk away he would follow them and continue to say those harsh words. He would stand outside her house – on the publicly owned street of course – and carry a megaphone continuing to yell out that joke and any more he can think of preventing Ms. Price from ignoring the words and also preventing any of her neighbours a good night’s sleep. I think the majority of people would agree that a ‘disrupting of the peace’ order would be acceptable punishment for anti-social behaviour – but it was again entirely based around him saying words.

Let’s take it to another extreme and say that Boyle didn’t repeat those words to Price but one of his most loyal fans had tracked her down and committed the previously imagined act. The perpetrator would be prosecuted – but could Boyle be considered an accessory by implanting the idea? Was this man brainwashed in the same way that Larke said she felt brainwashed by Collins? Again we would probably err on the side of that not being the case for Boyle.

But then what about Abu Hamza? He is facing charges for inciting violence with his vile verbal attacks on Western civilisation and lauding of the terrorist atrocities made in the name of the God he believes. Is he guilty by association for brainwashing misguided youths who attack innocent civilians? If he is innocent because of ‘freedom of speech’ does that mean a member of Al-Qaeda who merely advised their soldiers on what actions they should take innocent because all they have done is speak words?

So by posting on Facebook were Ahmed and Woods merely shouting out loudly amongst their friends in the confines of their own virtual property or were they screaming it in a public space or even the victims’ faces? Given that Ahmed’s words were posted on a tribute page to recently deceased troops you can argue that he was falls in the latter camp. If Woods was posting on his own feed you could argue the former and that those who follow him should have known what they were letting themselves in for when they became his online friend – the common case being made by TV producers that they don’t have to watch Boyle, Jimmy Carr or anyone else they don’t like. It’s certainly a good case and one that should definitely be made to anyone who makes cheap jokes over the next few days about Justin Lee Collins’ TV career.

Perhaps trials of this nature in the future will be determined by what security filters a Facebook user chooses to decide who reads what. Then there could be arguments of plausible deniability because they were not sufficiently alerted to the latest changes and Mark Zuckerberg will sigh heavily as he finds himself on trial yet again whilst Aaron Sorkin grabs his pen and paper and bags himself a front row seat this time.

I realise these are extreme examples about people who can be considered extremists but it’s like the old joke where someone is asked if they’ll sleep with a person for a dollar and they refuse. Then they are asked if they’d sleep with the person for a million dollars and agree. In that case the person who has accepted the second offer confirms they have a price and it’s now just a matter of negotiation.

We’re constantly negotiating what we consider to be acceptable behaviour and therefore what we consider to be free speech – it’s an ongoing, albeit often tedious, debate not a guarantee set in stone. The words of an arrogant buffoon with their voice amplified and a spotlight shone in their face should not be considered the paragon of all society’s virtue nor the martyr for making crap jokes that lack tact but I guess if they can be a lightning rod for a greater conversation and understanding of where we are as a society then at least there’s hope.

Based on the state of stand-up I’d doubt the discourse will improve, though. If I have to hear one more tightly arseholed 22-year-old walking haircut make a rape joke I would suggest the comedy community introduce random ‘initiations’ for these youngsters who want to show off their edginess. Since they’ve not experienced life but seem to know everything about this random assault it’d be good for some of them – they’d get to write about what they know. Not all of them would have to take this plunge, of course, but that’s the beauty of it – no victim gets a say in it when it happens to them.

If one of these tightly arseholed 22-year-old walking haircuts now finds themselves on the receiving end of their favourite subject matter tomorrow could I now be considered an accessory like Abu Hamza? It’s certainly a lot more compelling evidence then was ever found for my fellow Brummies Judas Priest when they had to defend in court that they weren’t responsible for the suicides of two young men with their whole lives ahead of them – lives as gas station clerks according to Bill Hicks, but lives nonetheless.

The worst thing in all this is you have to defend the worst jokes out there. Not the jokes of talented comedians like Boyle and Liam Mullone, but the crap jokes made by crap open mic acts and Twitter and Facebook users without a single real funny thought in their head.

I hope Paul Chambers never thought during all those legal proceedings that he and new friend-in-cause Graham Linehan were about to write a sitcom together.

All that’s left for me to say is that I too believe that all soldiers should die. I mean who wants to live past a hundred anyway?

Published: 10 Oct 2012

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