Social networking communication: has the line on free speech been Drawn too far?

“Smash down in Northwich Town,” the name of a Facebook event page which has cost its creator, Jordan Blackshaw, four years in prison. The sentence followed the Chester Crown Court’s verdict that the event page, created during the London riots, was capable of inciting others to commit riot. However, given that the event went unattended, the town of Northwich left undisturbed, Brendon O’Neill, editor of Spiked, an independent online forum, questions whether the courts were justified in criminalising the defendant’s behaviour and considers whether the convictions were in fact a violation of the defendant’s right to freedom of expression.

Under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, to which Britain is party, all citizens have the right to freedom of expression, to communicate information, irrespective of its content, publicly, without suffering criminal sanctions. However, the right to freedom of expression is not absolute and it may be restricted if it is proportionate to do so. Article 10 of the Convention provides some guidance as to when this will be so, such as to prevent public disorder or the commission of a crime. The exact grounds which may justify its limitation are quite varied, but all are united in that they aim to prevent significant harm. Indeed, British Philosopher, John Stuart Mill argued that, ‘the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.’ To this end, criminalising the joker who shouts “fire” in a crowded theatre could be considered a proportionate response, because it is necessary to prevent the likely harm that would result from crowds of people rushing to the exits all at once. Accordingly, Jordan Blackshaw’s right to communicate freely on his Facebook could be lawfully restricted if the event he created posed a serious threat of harm to others.

Arguably, the defendant’s event page had the potential to cause various types of damage, such as wasting police time, offending other Facebook users, or causing the residents of Northwich anxiety. However, the only type of harm that could justify the restriction of his freedom of speech in this case is the offence of which he has been convicted: inciting others to commit riot. In the eyes of the Chester Crown Court, the Facebook event was capable of this, for it invited those on Jordan Blackshaw’s contact list to commit vandalism and violence at a specified location and time.

However, Brendon O’Neill argues that the event posed no real risk of instigating a riot. None of the event’s guests acted upon their invitation, and he argues that he made the event page in the knowledge that there was never any likelihood that they would.

Nevertheless, it is arguable that the circumstances surrounding the event made an otherwise innocent communication capable of inciting others to commit riot. Manchester Evening News argues that inviting people to participate in a riot in Northwich, while there were already ones happening in London, made it more likely that people would be influenced by the invitation.Indeed, the newspaper argues that the case serves as a reminder that users of social networking sites have a responsibility to ensure that the information they publish online is suitable for public viewing.

However, Jordan Blackshaw may argue that he believed the event page was suitable because he did not intend anyone to take it seriously. While Facebook allows its users to communicate with other people publicly, the aim of the website is to facilitate social networking. The event pages on the site can be created very quickly and without much thought, much like every day verbal communication among friends, and are often created as jokes or light hearted entertainment.

Indeed, in the grey area of social networking communication and the law, the line between comments made in jest with no intent or capacity to harm and ones that may amount to a criminal offence has become hard to draw. Jordan Blackshaw’s four year sentence has led many to ask, has the line, this time, been drawn too far?

By Stephanie Williams


 

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1 Response to “Social networking communication: has the line on free speech been Drawn too far?”


  1. 1 Tony October 4, 2011 at 1:46 pm

    Yes, the line has been drawn too far. Jordan Blackshaw deserves to be punished for his comments on facebook. However, four years jail sentence for a comment which did not result to any harm is disproportionate to the offence. Such a harsh sentence is like a sword of damoacle hanging on freedom of expreesion. it appears that the judge allowed sentiments and sympathy for those who lost properties and those harmed by the rioters to influence his judgement. I hope Jordan Blackshaw will appeals the sentence.


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