Andrew Allison: Thought police are £2m threat to free speech

THE Metropolitan Police in London is about to spend the best part of £2m (so much for austerity!) to set-up a new unit that will investigate inappropriate comments on social media.

To what extent should police be expected to investigate social media abuse?
To what extent should police be expected to investigate social media abuse?

Of course, no one can accurately define what is inappropriate or offensive actually means – it is always subjective. No one has (or at least should have) a legal right to be offended in a free society, but that isn’t stopping the Met from putting five detectives in charge of this new unit which will then go on to recruit an army of trained volunteers who will trawl the internet looking for people who have said something they deem offensive or inappropriate.

I would love to know who these busybodies are going to be. I don’t know about you, but I couldn’t be bothered and wouldn’t take any joy out of spending my day looking for something to take offence at – and then making sure the author of the comment in question had their collar felt by the boys in blue.

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We should revel in the diverse opinions that make our country the rich place it is. We should love and cherish the fact that only by having free speech are we the tolerant country we are. I don’t go along with the view that we are a country of hateful bigots.

Of course there are a few idiots on Twitter who think they can issue death threats and spread libellous lies about people and get away with it. However, there are already laws in place to stop them doing it and to bring to them to justice. Those laws are not an affront to anyone’s right to free speech – they are there to protect all of us from people who wish to do us physical harm and who spread lies that could destroy our lives. But these are not the sort of people the Met have in mind.

The police’s ‘hate crime operational guidance’ now stresses that the victim’s perception is the deciding factor in whether something is measured as a hate crime. In plain English, it means that anyone who feels someone has said something hateful against them doesn’t have to provide a shred of evidence to prove it.

The police are expressly told that they should not challenge the “victim’s” perception. Any one of us could be on the receiving end of this policy. Any one of us could find ourselves inconvenienced for hours at our local police station where what we said or didn’t say is trawled over to ascertain if what we allegedly said was hateful or not. And even then, as long as the person who made the complaint perceives it as being hateful, we could still see ourselves found guilty of a crime.

When I was growing up, many jokes used to do the rounds about Irish people. Indeed, many Irish comedians made a very good living out of telling those jokes ad nauseam. If you try telling a ‘Paddy and Murphy’ joke these days on Facebook, there is every chance that someone may report you for racism. I know they are deemed old-fashioned these days, but does telling an Irish joke really warrant a criminal record?

If you say something that is remotely critical of Islam, expect your collar felt, although if anyone says anything critical of Christianity, it’s open season and Christians are told to take it on the chin or turn the other cheek and get on with it. I could go on about this injustice for hours, but that’s the start of a whole new article.

If you believe that women shouldn’t have careers and should not be allowed out the house unaccompanied (a view prevalent in some parts of our society), you could rightly be accused of sexism. You may also have me telling you what a neanderthal you are, but holding sexist views is surely not a crime? If you say something sexist on Twitter that is deemed offensive to women, don’t be surprised if this is picked-up and monitored, with any action deemed appropriate taken.

They are just three examples of a very long list. For those who still trot out the line, “if you have done nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear” – what do you have to say now? No longer can you pass by on the other side, because one of these days you too could become a victim of an injustice all because someone, somewhere, deemed a comment you made as offensive, hurtful, hateful, racist, homophobic or sexist.

Is this the sort of country you want to live in and the place where you want your children and grandchildren to grow up? If the answer is no, then now is the time to put your head above the parapet before it really is too late.

Andrew Allison, from East Yorkshire, is head of campaigns at The Freedom Association.