Writing in the Guardian, Director of Public Prosecutions Alison Saunders announced that the Crown Prosecution Service would be doubling down on its fight against online abuse. The updated guidance, readable here, makes specific reference to hate speech directed at bisexual people for the first time – until now, the focus was much more general. Saunders herself said that they would handle cases with the same “robust and proactive approach used with offline offending”. Clearly, CPS are not messing around here. Given the recent epidemic of online attacks, including, amongst other things, the shocking abuse faced by some prominent politicians, this should be welcome news.
Certain enclaves of the internet, however, are seething.
This is nothing new in and of itself. Whenever someone breaches the topic, the internet cries havoc, and lets slip the anonymous accounts of absolute free speech defence. Butchered Voltaire quotes and slippery slope fallacies fly thick through the air. Commentators bemoan “generation snowflake” and screech about thoughtcrime. No doubt CPS do not want to protect people from online abuse that, if shouted in their face in the street, they would be taking the abuser to court for. No, this is the globalist cabal pushing through its PC agenda.
You get the distinct impression that these people haven’t ever actually fallen foul of hate laws. Or, for that matter, online abusers. Their anger seems to come from something we recently saw on display in Charlottesville – of course, I’m not accusing these people of being Nazis. That said, they do seem keen on defending them in the name of “free speech”. We need to discuss what free speech is and is not.
Free speech is a cornerstone of our democratic society that gives you the right to air your views, whatever they are. What it does not protect you from is the consequences. Accordingly, Twitter banning you for calling Diane Abbott an n-word is perfectly fine. If people tell your boss you were at a white supremacist march, then your inalienable rights remain unviolated. The point is, you have the right to say what you want. However, those listening are just as free to respond in kind and so being told what you said is unacceptable is still free speech.
In any case – hate speech laws exist for a reason. Unlimited liberty is a self-defeating concept, as you give those that would abuse this the power to take it away from their peers. Absolute free speech hurts the very people it is supposed to protect. It is better, surely, to put in place limits that no decent human being will ever fall foul of? People are absolutely right to be wary of giving others power over what they can and cannot say; but this draws dangerously close to putting ideology above the rights of others.
The counterarguments to measures to crack down on online hate speech are usually “sticks and stones, toughen up”. But that misses the point of the exercise. Yes, name calling, however horrendous, is just name calling. To a certain extent it can and should just be ignored (looking at you, people who make things personal when they’re disagreed with on politics). But this is different. Inactivity is empowerment. What starts off as name-calling online escalates to abuse hurled in the streets, which escalates to episodes like Charlottesville. “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
So no, I don’t believe we have to listen to Nazis. Or Klansmen, for that matter, or radical jihadis, and I welcome CPS’ new guidance. We mustn’t over-do the defence of free speech. The police aren’t hauling people off for criticising the government; we are pushing back against advocates of genocide. We cannot allow these people to hide behind freedom as an excuse, when they want to take that freedom away. Defending Nazis is like jumping into the creek to feed a starving alligator. Compassion alone will not stop it, nor them, from eating you.