Free speech has been frequently covered in the recent news, with the election campaign of Donald Trump in the 2016 Presidential Election, the court case of “Count Dankula” and his Nazi-saluting pug, and the recent ‘Day for Freedom’ protest in London, on May 6th, 2018. In spite of this, when faced with the principle of free speech, I fear that we don’t discuss the negative externalities which arise from some people’s actions on social media, and the complex nuances of some individual cases, where the consequences, of what could be termed hate speech, but is instead regarded as “dark humour”, have hit some people quite hard.

Another issue prominently discussed in recent news is sexual assault allegations, in particular, those facing celebrities in the aftermath of the Harvey Weinstein scandal. CNN published a list of the accused, and the #metoo movement has developed into a tool of solidarity for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. The movement has allowed many to reveal their stories of abuse publicly without fear of retribution. Such developments can only take place, however, if as communities we support those who are the victims of assault and domestic violence, and demand justice for them.

This month, some students at the University of Warwick were found to have been discussing rape jokes targeted towards other fellow students. Their messages were leaked and made public by the media, resulting in their suspension from the university until further notice.

Some of the messages include:

  • “need to be stacked so I can hold the freshers down”[1]
  • “why is it always the moany f**** who have things happen to them?”[1]
  • “I swear to god if its the ____ girl in my flat I’m going to go all 1945 advancing soviet army on her and rape her in the street whilst everyone watches”[2]
  • “I cannot wait to have surprise sex with some freshers”[2]

It may possibly have been intended as merely “dark humour” in a private chat, and some would argue that this is protected by the principle of free speech. Nonetheless, when John Stuart Mill wrote his essay On Liberty, it’s doubtful that he intended his ideas on the virtues of free speech, truth-seeking and enlightenment to apply in the case of rape jokes on social media. Mill’s work defended the right to controversial political opinions, not freedom from the consequences of one’s own actions, and rape is not a topic that should be taken lightly. On Twitter, a Conservative supporter, Matthew (@PoliticallyMW), stated a thought-provoking critique of their actions:

“Any claims that the Warwick students involved in these horrendous chats, were simply exercising their right to free speech, are erroneous. They showed a flagrant disregard for the rights of others; it wasn’t just offensive; large swathes was filled with [potential] illegality!” (https://twitter.com/PoliticallyMW/status/994557606902620160)

Furthermore, jokes like these, when exposed, can have social, economic and psychological costs on the victims of these cruel “jokes” and the universities or institutions they attend.

Firstly, remarks like these may have had a profound impact on the girls mentioned. Rape is a heinous crime, and when one in five women in England and Wales has experienced some form of sexual violence since the age of 16, none want to consider the likelihood of such a thing happening to them. Depending on how vulnerable the victims of this discussion may be, it may impose financial costs upon the victims, in seeking support. It could also have social costs, in provoking anxiety and potentially victimisation from friends of the people who make these type of jokes.

Secondly, their university might have no way of telling what the intentions of the students were, or the nature of the content discussed, and whether it truly was “dark humour”. On that basis, the university would have to investigate the issue whilst assuming that there is a possibility that the threats could have been genuine. Considering that universities often have an obligation and a duty to protect their students from harm, suspending the students until the issue has been investigated fully seems like responsible and appropriate action to take.

Thirdly, investigating this issue takes away valuable time, money and resources from university staff, who have other academic issues to resolve. Investigating incidents like this and how they affect people has an opportunity cost. Media coverage of this incident also means that universities could face a loss of their reputation as a result of problems like this since the chat members involved in these comments were students themselves.

Fourthly, when the students in the chat sent their messages, they should have been aware that there was a likelihood the messages could be leaked at some point. Even in private messaging, social media operates in the public sphere. There was always the possibility that their messages could be made public.

Finally, if universities decide against punishing students in cases like this (even if the girls in question were in on the jokes and chose not to press charges), it sets the precedent that jokes about rape are acceptable. If female students are dissuaded from attending, this could have a serious financial impact. If new students don’t feel safe attending certain universities, then they might choose to study elsewhere.

The solution I’d propose in a situation such as this is that a university has to act in a similar way that an employer would over their employee- where employees are expected to act within particular set standards of behaviour. The moment these students directed their threats and abuse at fellow students, it became personal, and thus a matter the university would have to intervene in.

The greater question is, however, are these students’ words acceptable in a public forum, even if they saw them as a joke? The casual manner in which they suggested raping fellow students is haunting and vile, to say the least. Can we really extend the virtues of free speech, something afforded to thinkers and philosophers of all sides of the political spectrum, to students joking with direct threats of rape, especially given the numerous complex costs which can be incurred upon the victims? The messages sent in the chat depict clear hostility towards victims of sexual assault, and if we seek to create communities that can accommodate them, then it becomes our responsibility to call out comments such as these.

 

The screenshots, quotes and more information on their content can be found at these sources:

1. https://thetab.com/uk/warwick/2018/05/09/named-and-pictured-the-warwick-boys-who-made-rape-jokes-in-their-group-chat-28615

2. https://theboar.org/2018/05/warwick-students-temporarily-suspended/

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