Alan Reid: Prosecuting trolls is not a threat to freedom

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NOT so long ago, many people would have looked blank-faced when the subject of internet trolling was brought up. But it’s now clear that we’re living in the age of the troll – and this week has proved that it can bring devastating consequences.

A troll, for the uninitiated, is someone who sows discord on the internet by starting arguments or upsetting people with inflammatory messages. And if we needed any further proof of the damaging impact such behaviour can have it, has been provided by the case of Brenda Leyland.

The church-going mother was accused of trolling Kate and Gerry McCann over the disappearance of their daughter Madeleine in Portugal in 2007 using the Twitter handle “sweepyface”. Sky News doorstepped the 63-year-old at her home last week to confront her about the allegations. On Saturday her body was found in a hotel room in Leicester. Police said her death was not being treated as suspicious and the assumption must be that the stigma of being identified as an internet troll had taken its toll.

It’s the latest in a line of high-profile cases of people being exposed for their bullying online activity – and none have ended well.

During the recent campaign to have Jane Austen as the face of the new £10 note, 33-year-old part-time delivery driver Peter Nunn sent grossly offensive tweets to the MP Stella Creasy, who was one of the campaign’s most vocal supporters.

Nunn’s online activities can in no way be described as simple banter, satire or tomfoolery. He even moved accounts to continue his barrage of abuse when his original account was blocked.

His activities resulted in an 18-week jail sentence and a court order banning him from contacting Miss Creasy and Caroline Criado-Perez, who had launched the Jane Austen campaign.

However, the Crown Prosecution Service’s tightening of the rules surrounding the prosecution of online communications, though welcome in restoring a sense of proportionality and common sense to the targeting of limited resources on the most shocking cases, may actually be having an unintended consequence.

A belief that online comments will only be proceeded against in the most extreme of circumstances may further embolden people to engage in such risky behaviour.

However, although the right to freedom of expression does indeed embrace speech which is extremely challenging, controversial or difficult, this right does not extend to speech of a threatening or menacing nature.

Such restrictions on the freedom of speech are perfectly acceptable in a modern democratic society, as long as they are both necessary and proportionate to the risks posed. The offence of sending a grossly indecent or menacing nature is one such necessary and proportionate restriction.

Thirdly, the decision to prosecute Nunn would not have been taken lightly by the Crown Prosecution Service. The increasing prevalence of online communication channels, in particular social media, means that more and more indecent, menacing and obscene communications are taking place over the internet – and the CPS has a duty to respond.

Indeed, the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis at University College London has developed the “Tweet-O-Meter” to calculate the volume of Twitter traffic across the globe. The Tweet-O-Meter estimates that there are in excess of 1,200 tweets a minute being sent in the London area alone at any given minute.

A great deal of these communications may well be inappropriate. However, effectively policing these levels of online communications is an increasingly impossible task. Thus, the CPS issued guidelines to its prosecutors in July 2013 to focus its resources on the most egregious online violations of the law.

These guidelines are effectively designed to filter out a large number of online communications. The CPS will only agree to prosecute individuals for posting and re-communicating messages where there is enough evidence against the individual to sustain a realistic prospect that a jury or a magistrate would convict and that to prosecute would be in the public interest.

Unfortunately for Nunn, his case fit the bill on every front. As for Brenda Leyland, we will never know what, if any, action would have been taken against her. What we do know is that we would all do well to think very carefully before pressing the “send” button in the future.

Alan S. Reid is a senior lecturer in Sheffield Hallam’s law and criminology department.