How Weird And Frightening Should You Be Allowed To Be On Twitter Before You Get Prosecuted?

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By Alex Aldridge on

Yesterday’s debate on free speech vs regulation of social media – held at London’s Free Word Centre by the Human Rights Lawyers Association – was remarkable for how little consensus there was among the panel of eminent lawyers who gathered to discuss the subject.

Bindmans media law head Tamsin Allen, who’s not a prolific tweeter herself, argued for rules and more rules to prevent, in particular, cyber-bullying.

In contrast, Twitter joke trial barrister John Cooper QC, the author of 5,726 tweets and counting, reckons people “have a right to be grossly offensive” – and that “common sense” rather than law should be used to determine when they go beyond that.

New Statesman legal correspondent David Allen Green, meanwhile, whose ‘Jack of Kent’ Twitter account is the most well known of any British lawyer, was cautious of both approaches. He suggested the real problem with the existing law governing online communications is the “lack of certainty” it gives social media users, pointing to the recent cases of Matthew Woods (jailed for posting comments about April Jones on Facebook) and Azhar Ahmed (given 240 hours community service after writing an offensive post about dead British soldiers).

Which route will Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer follow as he attempts to come up with recommendations for new rules on social media abuse by the end of the year? Having already stated that the right to be offensive “has to be protected”, and faced complaints from police about having to waste resources on dealing with petty online bust-ups, the expectation is that he’ll suggest a more relaxed, US-style regime.

But how well would such rules hold up if more freedom of speech unleashes a wave of cyber-bullying? This debate is surely going to run and run…