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Do social networks make free speech, too free?

Social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, have brought the world together. They've allowed us to communicate with the stars of our generation and previous ones, they've let us see into the lives of those protesting in war torn countries and made it possible for us to tell public figures that we think they suck, directly, but it's caused some problems too. We've seen people arrested for things they've said, serious allegations thrown around without thought and personal abuse that some would claim is too targeted.

It brings about an interesting argument. On one side you have the rights of individuals to speak out and say what they feel, what they think and what they want, and on the other you have people being offended, people feeling hurt and perhaps more seriously, claims of libel. This leads us to a question that is often asked these days, does social networking allow too great a degree of free speech?

Twitter lets us do something that was not  possible before: it lets you send a message directly to a public figure. Imagine trying to send a message to some of the great actors and musicians of old. It would have taken the form of a letter, which would have either been immediately tossed or read by an assistant and if it was noteworthy maybe it would have ended up infront of the person it was intended for. Now though, all you need to do is time your @ mention correctly and you can practically guarantee that the person you wanted to contact will have seen it. That's not necessarily the case for those with millions and millions of followers, but those with a couple hundred thousand who receive a few mentions a minute – they're pretty easily reachable.

This is a great thing for artists as it lets them ask questions of their fans and get immediate responses. They can communicate promotional material like the dates of gigs, or live appearances or simply make jokes and appear more down to earth. It's a great tool, but it can occasionally lead to people not being very nice. Take the case of Olympic diver Tom Daley. After coming fourth in his event at the 2012 games, one man tweeted him to say that he had let down his deceased father.

Now this is a very nasty thing to say, no one is going to disagree with that. However, what was said there was not illegal. Nobody has the right to repeatedly harass someone, but neither does anyone have the right not to have their feelings hurt. You're reading my work write now. There is nothing stopping you – apart from KitGuru moderators – from telling me in the comment section below how much of an idiot I am. Maybe you'll call me short – considering I'm 5'4, you'd not be wrong – or any manner of horrible things. But it wouldn't be illegal.

This is why it's a problem that after Tom Daley received these messages and there was a moderate public outcry, a 17 year old and 28 year old man were both arrested. The former was eventually issued a warning and no charges were brought against the latter, but they were arrested and investigated – simply for telling someone in a graphic manner that they didn't like them.

An instance like this was brought up again recently, when a man posted a picture on Facebook of him burning a poppy on Remembrance Sunday. Again, this is a pretty disrespectful thing to do. Naturally people were outraged, offended, wanted to string him up, have him beaten – all sorts of horrible things – things some would suggest are a lot worse than essentially burning a plastic flower. However of course it's the message of what he was doing that was what people found offensive. Along with his curse filled caption, it was his way of putting a middle finger up to the dead who have fought to maintain the nation he now enjoys the privileges of.

However, one of those privileges is the freedom of speech.

People often like to say that people should wear a poppy whether they want to or not. I would imagine those same people are some of the most angry about the poppy burner's actions. Ironically, by not wearing a poppy and even by burning one, the lad who lit that fake flower on fire, was exercising his free speech. He was going against the grain and telling you he doesn't support it. The poppy wearer's are absolutely exercising their free speech too, but just as they would be outraged if someone arrested them for wearing them, shouldn't we be outraged that someone has been arrested for doing the exact opposite?

Burning Poppy
Can I post this safely? Or are we suggesting that burning poppy's are like pictures of a certain prophet?

The final case I want to look at is the recent issue with retired politician Alistair McAlpine, who was vaguely implicated by a Guardian journalist through Twitter of sexually abusing one or more children during his career. In the wake of this, Lord McAlpine has said he plans to take legal action against those that made libellous claims about him on the social network, ending what his lawyer described as “Trial by Twitter.”

While I'm far from a legal expert,  it seems – if you look at British defamation law – that as long as you are basing an opinion on facts, that you are perfectly allowed to have it. You can likely argue that any claims of child sexual abuse is libellous if the person is innocent, simply because of the stigma attached to the crime, but I think in the case of the Guardian writer – who merely pointed out that McAlpine worked in the cabinet while the abuse was going on – he should be ok, legally. Morally it's another thing altogether. Hinting at someone being a paedophile is akin to breaking out the torches and lynching rope, so while I would still argue he has a right to say it, perhaps with something so emotionally charged, the journalist, or any other Twitter user should clarify their position first.

“In my opinion…” is how any tweet should begin if you plan to make outrageous statements that may land you in legal waters. It's far from perfect, but make it clear you're stating an opinion not a fact.

However this is an issue that's been around for decades, the only difference now is it's online, it's often permmanent and it's much easier for people to read. Twitter is the equivalent of writing on the wall of the world's public toilets. You can use your marker pen to scrawl a person's name at the top to try and make sure they read it and they may do, but the point is: they don't have to read it. It may not be nice people saying things about you, but you don't have to read it. Tom Daley didn't need to read those tweets. Nobody needed to give attention to the poppy burner and Lord McAlpine doesn't need to listen to twitter commentary about his alleged actions.

Sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me. We all know it's not true, we all know that words hurt, but we should act like they don't. Words can hurt, but words unheard cannot. If a person says something horrible about you, but you're not around to hear it, have they really said anything?

It's a weird stance to take, but if we want to avoid threatening what those we wear poppies to remember fought for, it's a necessary one.

Ultimately, I believe in free speech. I believe in the right to say what I want, but more importantly, I believe in the right for you to say what you want. I may not always agree with you, but I will always defend your right to say it. I hope you feel the same way about me.

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