Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Freedom of speech can't be unlimited

We must define the boundaries of what is acceptable on the internet

Monday 06 July 2009 00:00 BST

Libertarians and free expression campaigners were jubilant last week. An obscenity case was due to be heard against Darryn Walker, a 35-year-old civil servant who had posted an essay on a website, titled Girls (scream) Aloud, imagining the sexual torture and mutilation of the each of the women who make up the pop group.

In his fantasy, they are slashed and dismembered and, according to Don Grubin a consultant psychiatrist, the singers "are sexually aroused in spite of and, indeed, because of the humiliation, pain and domination". This apparently modern erotica known as "popslash". Cool, man.

The case was dropped and is celebrated as another important knock-back for censorship. Sadly I felt unable to join in with the good cheer. Something is deeply troubling about the validation given to Walker and those who think they have the right to say whatever they wish and excitedly share with others the thrills of extreme violence against women.

The formidable Geoffrey Robertson QC (who rose to fame fighting the case brought against Oz) is very pleased indeed. Jo Glanville, editor of Index Against Censorship (an organisation I support but not blindly) righteously asserts: "The prosecution should not have been brought in the first place. Since the landmark obscenity cases of the 1960s and 1970s, writers have been protected so they can explore the extremes of human behaviour. This case posed a serious threat to that freedom."

Hmmm. Is that so? So If Walker had written, say, the same fantasy but on the sexual torture of Anne Frank, would Index have backed him? Or if a wannabe Muslim fiction writer had done the same, would he have the right to "explore the extremes of human behaviour"? I hope the answer to both these hypothetical questions is No.

Freedom of speech is a precious right, fought for in Europe over many centuries, and still denied to billions of humans – as we have just witnessed in Iran and know to be true of China, African and Arab nations, Burma, and so on. Granted that in countries where the state oppresses and totally controls its populations, the people must find ways to subvert the controllers and criticise their oppressors.

Whistleblowers in institutions must also grab that freedom, so too family members thwarted by their own. But it is never an absolute entitlement, not unless you believe it is worth the resulting social discord and terrible individual wreckage.

We all exercise judgements on what we say or don't say in public. You stop yourself because you don't want to hurt people, or to instigate a street brawl. There are laws that sacrifice freedom of speech for a greater good- harmony between races, public safety, social gentility and so on. We accept libel and defamation laws (hated by hacks of course), national security injunctions and establishment secrets (loved by politicians) and underpinning all that is a general understanding of what would be inappropriate and hateful if expressed in public.

Not everybody agrees on where the lines should be, but most know there are lines. These restraints belong to a pre-internet era and cannot contain or temper the limitlessness of the web. And yet we must, over the next few years, define the boundaries of what is acceptable in this brazen new world.

It is all very well for Mr Walker to feel like a champion of human rights but what about the women in Girls Aloud, who are real, not imagined, and whose slow death can be enjoyed by pervs and killers? They have families, mums, perhaps, lovers, who too will be feeling caught in a web of horrors. The legal state is unsettled. Meanwhile the internet is exploding and explosive, having a real impact on real lives.

Last week I found myself being tailed through town by a weird bloke, who kept stopping me, once or twice seizing my elbow. Why, he demanded, did I want, British soldiers killed and hurt? This question has been coming at me via email for a few months. I couldn't understand why.

Someone told me my Wikipedia entry had quoted the NeoCon Doug Murray, who had attacked me in a book for writing: "There have been times when I have wanted more chaos, more shocks, more disorder to teach our side a lesson". To put this in context, what I actually wrote was: "The past months have been disquieting and challenging for many of us in the antiwar camp. I know and am ashamed to admit this that there have been times when I have wanted more chaos, more shocks, more disorder to teach our side a lesson ... The decent people of Iraq need optimism now not my distasteful ill-wishes for the only hope they have for the future." If this attack has stayed in Murray's book it would have passed but bloggers recently picked it up and it has been hell since.

Peter Tatchell tells me that lies are circulated about him and he receives constant threats. Polly Toynbee and others are subjected to mob fury for no good reason. Are we just supposed to put up with this behaviour because the web must be free?

Internet libel law is building up and internet service providers are put under pressure to remove sites where material is defamatory. Chatrooms and blogs are increasingly expected to be moderated. The defence of "innocent dissemination" may not survive.

In 2006, Ukip's Michael Keith won damages after joining a chatroom where anonymous postings smeared his character and in 2008 a CEO of a housing business got a large payout after a rival company carried out a malicious personal smear campaign against him. As the internet is transnational, awareness is growing that extraordinary care is needed to prevent legal action. Corporate liability, third party culpability are encouraging mechanisms for self-regulation. In my view some of this is necessary.

We don't yet have a really effective way of restraining material promoting racism, sexism, violence (except against children), homophobia, and other group hatreds. It must come if we are to make the best use of this amazing technology and not let it pull us down to a barbarism posing as freedom. That, I fear, is what has happened with Mr Walker and his spurious victory.


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