Free speech should not be snuffed out

Controversial blogger and prolific tweeter Old Holborn is being interviewed by police. This demonstrates exactly why free speech has to be defended

Is there an Old Holborn in all of us?
Simon Miller
On 19 April 2013 16:15

Today I was going to write about typos, fat fingers and economic predictions being as accurate as a weather report. But then something happened today that should chill all lovers of the right to free speech to the bone.

In Baintree, Essex, blogger and prolific tweeter Old Holborn is subject to an investigation over tweets he made in relation to the Hillsborough football tragedy and the death of James Bulger.

For those of you that don’t know Old Holborn, he’s the bloke who can often be seen in the background on news reports dressed as “V”/ Guy Fawkes. Over the years he has been vocal in attacking police over shootings, the continued politicisation of health, and the assault on individual freedoms by politicians.

Recently he has taken to twitter and, let’s be fair, his feed displays some extremely dubious and distasteful comments sitting alongside his usual anger about how the country is going.

But to be investigated?

According to Essex police, a Merseyside resident reported inappropriate and offensive tweets so the police are investigating an allegation of “potentially criminal communication through social media”.

Sorry, what was that last bit? Potentially criminal communication through social media? When did a person’s views become a criminal matter, seriously?  Have we really got to the point where someone can go crying to the police because someone said some bad things?

Like Frankie Boyle, Old Holborn can ride too close to the knuckle; in fact, so close that often the white of bones is showing. But it is not up to the law to decide whether his twittering is “inappropriate”. This is part of an on-going assault on the sensibilities of this country. From health and safety to free speech, the infantilisation of citizens continues.

Free speech is non-negotiable if you want a free society. Unless you are inciting violence or other criminal behaviour, you should be free to offend and to take offence. The criminalisation of crass tweets has been happening all too frequently and we must take a stand or no one will be free.

Whether or not Old Holborn offended the people of Liverpool en masse is not up for debate. It’s my view that he likely did. But no matter how offensive he was, I will defend his right to be offensive.

It is not a crime to be tasteless – or rather it shouldn’t be. Here’s the thing: over the past fortnight, everyone seems to have taken offence at Margaret Thatcher’s death. Whether because of the eulogies to her or because of the condemnations and crass death parties: someone, somewhere, took offence.

That is the point of freedom: it offends, it always has. As a journalist, I am fully aware that no matter what I write, where I write it, or how I write it, it is almost guaranteed that it will grate on someone. But as long as there is no incitement to violence or criminal behaviour, free speech should be just that: free. Free to inspire, free to bore, free to offend and free to complain.

If Liverpudlians feel that Old Holborn has libeled them, then they should take him to court in a civil prosecution. But in these types of situations there should never be a reason to bring in criminality.

Free speech should not be shackled in this way. If you’re offended by Old Holborn, argue him down; take him off your twitter feeds; you might even consider not reading his blog – it’s not compulsory. Just don’t send the police to hassle him.

This is a proud nation, with a proud history of controversial thinkers and writers. The internet may have made things more immediate, with a wider distribution than ever before, but that should not be a legitimate reason to use up police resources and time because someone has rubbed you up the wrong way.

If we are to live in a free society, comment should be free (how ironic). Opinions should be expressed.

This week I thought a certain writer was being crass after the Boston bombing. I told him so but on no account would I have considered wanting to ban him let alone getting him arrested. It was his opinion and he was, to use a hated phrase, in his right to express it.

There does seem to be a particular lean to the concept of free speech. Certain things can be said, certain views can be held. Other views should be shouted down, condemned, banned. That is why free speech must be immovable, non-negotiable. No person, party or law should dictate what is an appropriate tweet.

That way lies serfdom. 

Simon Miller is a contributing editor to The Commentator. Follow him on Twitter @simontm71

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