Freedom of Speech Does Not Grant You the Right to Threaten or Lie


In recent weeks there has been a slew of articles published, two of which I have seen at our own Wessex Scene, which have been concerned (to understate the matter) about freedom of speech. By and large, and certainly in the case of the items published here, the events of concern have been the recent prevention of so-called ‘anti-gay’ adverts on the side of buses in London (enacted by Transport for London) and the sentencing of Liam Stacey for his abusive tweets.

The problem is, is that these events have little or nothing to do with Freedom of Speech. I shall grant Sam Gilonis that the terms of Article 10, section 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights seems extraordinarily liberal in its license to exclusions. As this excellent permalink from Wikipedia demonstrates, with ample references, Britain takes full advantage of those permitted exclusions. That said, neither the case of Liam Stacey nor of Transport for London’s decision have anything to do with Freedom of Speech, and certainly nothing to do with their right to be offensive to anybody they so wish- they are about threatening and misleading innocent members of the public. So let us look at each of these events in turn, in conjunction with a few cold, hard facts.

Liam Stacey

…uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour…

Public Order Act 1986
First, a real shock: Liam Stacey was not convicted of inciting racial hatred, nor for that matter, was he convicted of being offensive. According to the Crown Prosecution Service, he was charged, and pleaded guilty to a “racially aggravated [offense under]s4A of the Public Order Act 1986.”  In particular, it was his use of threats that provoked the charge- which contrary to some claims, he did make, and thankfully, some bright soul had the forethought to capture the information so that I might embed it here:


In particular, note the tweet which reads:

…I’ll stamp on your face until its f***ing flat…

If that doesn’t count as threatening, I don’t know what does.

Transport for London

We don’t believe these ads reflect TfL’s commitment to a tolerant and inclusive London.

Transport for London
via Twitter

In a very different case, Transport for London recently pulled the rug out from an advertising campaign for “Conversion Therapy” or “Gay Therapy”. Whilst a tweet from Transport for London would indicate that the pulling of these adverts was linked to a tolerance-based ethos, one should remember that the business is politically coloured, and could have been looking to shine its equality credentials (cynical, moi?). There is a very strong legal reason why Transport for London should, could and did pull these adverts, and it has nothing to do with being offensive, or even threatening. In this case it has to do with advertising standards.

The Advertising Standards Authority states on their website that non-broadcast advertisers are largely self regulated. However, they are covered by a piece of legislation which governs the honesty of claims made in adverts. Transport for London, it seems, could be liable for “publishing” the adverts, since the defences permitted under the legislation are as follows:

18.—(1) In any proceedings against a person for an offence under regulation 9, 10, 11 or 12 committed by the publication of an advertisement it shall be a defence for a person to prove that—

(a)he is a person whose business it is to publish or to arrange for the publication of advertisements;

(b)he received the advertisement for publication in the ordinary course of business; and

(c)he did not know and had no reason to suspect that its publication would amount to an offence under the regulation to which the proceedings relate.

The last segment of that legislative out-take is of key interest here. Transport for London are only in a defensible position with regards to the content of an advert if they had no reason to suspect it was dishonest. One TfL has had it brought to their attention that there might be dishonest content in an advert, they are obliged to investigate, and self regulate should they find a claim in the advert that cannot be backed up.

This takes us to the nub of the matter. The content of the “Anti-Gay” ad was not so much offensive (in my opinion) as it was misleading. As illustrated by this piece in Scientific American, claims have been made some time now for the “curing” of homosexuals (although it should be noted that The World Health Organisation does not condone the classification of homosexuality as a disease). Such claims have, in the main, proven to be unfounded, and indeed the prevalence of religious and counter-religious opinion has only served to muddy the water. In any event, the debate has attracted the ire of psychiatric bodies such as the American Psychiatric Association, who condemn the treatments.

To Conclude

The defence of free speech is an honourable and necessary task. I would go so far as to argue that we, collectively, should be aiming to expand our freedom of speech in several areas. However, I stop short of saying that we should be able to bully, threaten and lie. Such vices allow us to silence and misdirect- and this surely is a violation of human rights.


Philip Adler is a Ph. D. Student of Crystallography, studying in Chemistry.

Discussion7 Comments

  1. avatar

    This article seems to have been written, at least in part, as a response to mine but I don’t think you have you have parried my central or even my peripheral arguments. You have not responded to the idea that we do ourselves as much of a disservice by acting the part of the censor as we do the censored. Jailing Liam Stacey means that we don’t get to hear from future Liam Staceys.
    The idea of laws to prevent lying or threatening is one that I regard as suspicious as it involves a certain amount of caprice. The internet is saturated with far graver threats than those made by Liam Stacey that nobody could possibly take seriously and we do, obviously, ignore these else our jails would be full of hungover online bigmouths. It was a completely arbitrary decision to crucify Liam Stacey using clumsily written legislation that was written 30 years prior, for the prevention of serious and actual threats, not for the jailing of scumbags ranting on Twitter (making threats that not a single person could interpret as being authentic). Even where genuine threats are concerned I think that the law will be incompetent. I would not have had the men jailed who in 2006 stood outside of the Danish Embassy in London with banners saying ‘Behead those who insult the Prophet’ (standing next to ‘Free speech go to hell’) as we need to know these people think this. For similar reasons, laws against perfidy are to be suspected. We obviously should take action against those who defraud little old ladies but you could not possibly propose an outright criminalisation of dishonesty. Anglican Mainstream are not even being intentionally dishonest, they certainly are foolish but they are representing their views on sexuality in a response to a rather pointless finger in the eye from Stonewall. If certain views on science or history or anything else become illegal then the price we pay for this is well known. (George Lemaitre, on composing his first draft of the Big Bang theory, took it to the Vatican where the Pope of the day asked him if he wanted it made dogma. If you can’t see the absurdity then you probably don’t quite get science).
    You have also failed to respond to my question – who will you choose to judge what is threatening and what is dishonest? It seems painfully obvious to me that whoever was judging in these two cases got the answer dangerously wrong.

    P. Adler

    Well, in this case, the legal representatives of the state decide. Not a perfect system, in fact horribly flawed, but I think, a necessary evil.

    I agree that the decision to arrest Liam Stacey above so many thousands of others smacks of arbitrary application of law. However, his case differs distinctly from your persons outside the Danish embassy in that they were expressing something. Liam’s rant was nothing but directed insults and violent outbursts- one could hardly accuse it as a diminishment of his right to freedom of expression of an opinion since, well, he didn’t really express an opinion, for all his words.

    As for the case of dishonesty- the fact that I did not speak about the intent from Anglican Mainstream was quite deliberate. I categorically am not attempting to accuse them of being deliberately misleading- I can’t prove that. Therein lies the point. When it was raised to TfL’s attention that claims made or implied by the advert could not be backed up by sound proof, they are legally obliged to remove it. In much the same way as a drug company is not allowed to make false claims, knowingly or otherwise, about a product they produce. Allowing this kind of falsehood would be inherently dangerous, and much of the fallout of this is something that in science, myself and my colleagues seem to find ourselves dealing with on an almost daily basis from evolution to global warming to MMR vaccines.

    Samuel Gilonis

    I think that it’s an unnecessary evil, as well as an intolerable, an impracticable, an arbitrary and a self-destructive one. Freedom of speech can take care of the sort of people you are talking about far more effectively than courts can as I think I made clear with the example of R.Santorum.

    As for the Danish embassy case you appear to be saying that you’ll allow threats but only when they’re wrapped up in a cause or an ideology. This would obviously be absurd so I’ll assume I have misunderstood.

    Finally, your point on falsehoods – do you mean to say that you would have some scientific hypotheses made illegal to expound? Again, ignoring the absurdity of this, who could, would or should have the right to decide what theories have become grounded enough in fact to make the alternatives illegal? I can’t think of a bigger favour that you could do for the climate denial movement than to make their ideas illegal and therefore stopping all debate on the issue. I don’t see an argument about sexuality as significantly different.

  2. avatar

    With regard to the Liam Stacey case, he was not charged with making threats.
    In the tweet that you mentioned, he was actually responding to a threat made to *him*. He was saying that he would defend himself.

    This is why it helps to have *all* the tweets, and not just Liam Stacey’s tweets.

    If you read the Judge’s remarks at the end of the case, he does seem to be sentencing him with regard to the “offensiveness” of the tweets. He actually uses that word. No mention of threats.

    Free speech is at stake in this case, because it should not be illegal to be offensive. Yet the Public Order Act actually criminalises “insults”.

    So whenever you insult someone either verbally or by a tweet/email or a placard etc., you are at risk of arrest.
    It is a horribly vague law, and it can be easily abused and used for political purposes.

    P. Adler

    I’m not sure I would agree with you that saying that you will stomp someones face flat is a statement of intent to defend oneself. Further, I’m pretty sure the law would find that this would be aggravated assault rather than reasonable force. I do think, however, that if he had had his wits about him he might have (correctly) charged the person who threatened him with the offense he himself has now been imprisoned for, and I would argue right so.

    I am intrigued by your comment regarding the Judges remarks, and I’m not going to comment on that until I have indeed read them myself; I tried and failed to get ahold of this whilst writing my article. Would you be so kind as to point me to where you found them?

    I hasten to point out that this does not forbid people to be offensive- but yes, it does prohibit arbitrary insults. I’m not entirely rested with that, I’ll admit, as it does smack of censorship. Nevertheless, complete freedom to say whatever you want without proof or reason is just as open to abuse and political purpose.

    One thing that does occur to me- what is your stance on bullying in schools? Should bullies be allowed a free reign on free speech grounds, to engage in systematic insulting behaviour of other children. I think had I not had the protections I did from such matters- my school life would have been far harder than it was with the restrictions such rules provide.


    Here are the judge’s exact words from the appeal.
    You will see that there is no mention of “threats”.
    In fact, the police took Liam Stacey into custody for his own protection. He was more at risk than anyone.

    “It must also be emphasised that the Appellant has pleaded guilty to a crime of specific intent. He intended to use words which were offensive and he intended that the words should be racially offensive.”

    I find it absolutely appalling that in this country “offensive” words can lead to loss of liberty.

    You can also see from the transcript that the defence team barely seemed to be on Liam Stacey’s side at all. I have to wonder at the standard of the legal advice he was given.

    The other interesting thing is that the judge acknowledges the abusive messages sent to Liam Stacey yet he doesn’t acknowledge the provocation in those messages. Provocation is a mitigating factor.

    I’m not sure why you ask about schools. No, we shouldn’t allow bullying, but schools should deal with it and not courts. Children have been dragged into court for playground taunts under the Public Order Act.

    Harassment is something else, and I am in favour of laws covering extremes of behaviour such as harassment and threats, but simple name-calling should not be criminalised.

    Liam Stacey went to prison for 2 months for writing some nasty names to complete strangers on the internet, and that is ridiculous in my opinion.

    Philip Adler

    Thankyou for this, irksome though it is that it overturns a fairly key point in my article…

    I agree with you that provocation is a mitigating factor. A good point well made.

    The schools thing was something of a thought experiment. Sometimes, abuses occur and a “larger power” for want of better phrasing, is required to dictate what is and is not permissible- in the case of bullying behaviour, this can be extended to simply insulting comments. However, the point became somewhat mooted by your astute conclusion that: “Liam Stacey went to prison for 2 months for writing some nasty names to complete strangers on the internet” – this is not some systematic campaign.

    As you point out, the content of the judgement rather refutes my previous conclusions on this particular case (this now leaves me in a quandry as what to do next- does one publish a retraction in the Wessex Scene?)

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