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.
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:
…uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour…Public Order Act 1986
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 Londonvia 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.
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.