Censorship, free speech and Matthew Woods

Now and then, if I’m in a particularly boring meeting or social situation, I find my mind begins to wander. And before long, I get round to wondering what would happen – what the actual, practical outcome would be – were I to do something completely random and offensive. It might be to do with nudity, or sex, or swearing, or just being a total prick. I don’t spend long dwelling on what I’d actually do. It’s the outcome that interests me. It’s not because I secretly want to do such a thing. It’s just thinking of it creates a little frisson when you’re bored out of your mind. You find yourself getting slightly scared – what if I forget and actually do it? It’s like standing on a high balcony and getting ever so stressed  that you’ll have a “mad moment” and jump off. You sort of know you won’t, but you could and therefore you still just might. All it would take would be for me to say one word – just one word – and I could quite possibly destroy my whole career. Once you start thinking that it’s quite hard to stop (or perhaps it’s just be? Either way, I’ve been this way ever since 1980, when I used to fantasise about shinning up the climbing frame and yelling “bloody hell!” in the middle of assembly).

I wonder if this is what happens when people decide to publicise deeply offensive jokes on twitter and Facebook. I imagine there are other motivations – a desire to get attention or to be liked – but I wonder whether part of it is giving in to the freakish temptation to just sodding well do it (I imagine being drunk also helps). I don’t wish to excuse people causing hurt and distress to others, or to suggest that it’s okay – just some abstract exercise with no real-life implications – but could part of what drives such actions just be curiosity about breaking the unwritten codes?

Of course, they’re not unwritten codes any more. On the contrary, there is an actual written code – Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 – which criminalises sending “by means of a public electronic communications network a message or other matter that is grossly offensive” or persistently using a public electronic communications network “for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience or needless anxiety to another”. Fucking hell! Crikey! Is it just me or do the terms “grossly offensive” and “causing annoyance, inconvenience or needless anxiety” sound scarily subjective?

Matthew Woods, the 19-year-old who made  jokes about a missing child on his own Facebook page, was sentenced to 12 weeks imprisonment due to Section 127. Discussing the case in the Guardian, comedy writer Charlie Skelton expresses his dismay:

No one is defending him on the grounds that he’s funny. He’s not. But he deserves our support just as much as Paul Chambers, whose notorious airport-bomb quip was met with a great chorus of righteous retweets from furious defenders of free speech. That chorus seems to have gone a bit quiet, now that it comes to rallying behind “comments of a sexually explicit nature” regarding a missing five-year-old.

Personally, I missed the twitter joke trial. I heard about it while it was taking place, but genuinely assumed it was some form of kafkaesque performance art taking place via the medium of twitter rather than an actual trial (this is what too much arts education does to a person). But I’m inclined to agree with Skelton and it’s a strange place to be in given what “people like me” – lefty, feminist, grumpy – are assumed to think.

Skelton argues that “part of anyone’s job who works in comedy is to scratch about on the fringes of bad taste”. That sounds strange to me – a rather desperate excuse for knobdom, if I’m honest – but then I don’t work in comedy. I just laugh at things, selectively. It interests me, though, because there are certain jokes which I find objectionable and would rather were not made. They’re jokes which I think rely on the audience believing in a particular hierarchy – one which we should really be questioning – in order for them to make sense (shit  dearie me, I’m good at sounding humourless when I want to). The frustrating thing is, I don’t think there should be a law against such jokes. I merely think people should be enabled to see the possible effects of such “humour”, on the off-chance it might dissuade them from finding it so amusing. Nevertheless, get a feminist saying anything at all regarding jokes about rape or domestic violence and she’ll be accused of censorship before she’s reached the end of her own sentence (indeed, I have had comments on this blog telling me to “shut the fuck up” in the name of free speech. I find this ironic, but then I’ve also had comments telling me I don’t get irony, so what do I know?).

The Matthew Woods conviction really worries me. It’s not because I seriously think I’m on the verge of letting loose on twitter with all the things I shouldn’t ever want to say. On the contrary, deep down I know I’m not. When I’m sitting in meetings pondering what would happen if I were to strip naked, leap on the table and tell everyone they’re a bunch of … (this is all hypothetical, btw), it’s a kind of parlour game. I know I won’t literally do it, but I wonder how much my ability to manage this is a type of privilege. People such as Matthew Woods target people who are weak and their cruelty is tremendous. Yet at the same time, I can’t help feeling that our selective use of the law – singling some things out as “grossly offensive” and not others, in line with whatever mob rule dictates – creates an arbitrary hierarchy. It suggests that what “most people” think and do is by its very nature less offensive. It reinforces the idea that certain people can be singled out as outsiders who don’t know the rules and that they necessarily deserve to be punished. It privileges some people’s hurt over that of others. To me this feels random, capricious and wrong.

Right now, there seems to be little space in-between getting locked up for causing offence and getting accused of willful censorship simply for being offended. It is odd how these two things have come to sit side by side, stifling all debate, regardless of the side you choose to take. I worry I don’t know enough about censorship, free speech, philosophy or the law to take part in this discussion. But then most of us don’t yet most of us still need to be able to talk, joke, entertain obscene ideas, perhaps misjudge the social setting and, on occasion, seriously fuck mess up – don’t we? But then what happens next? I’ll aim to distract myself by thinking about this next time I’m bored.


2 thoughts on “Censorship, free speech and Matthew Woods

  1. I tried typing a comment on Friday from the train but it obviously didn’t work and now I can’t remember everything I wanted to say. Firstly, saying something offensive then writing ‘lol’ after it doesn’t make it a joke. Secondly some people have such indefensible opinion they don’t deserve to be protected by the ideals of a right to free speech. I saw this blog post recently which touches on what I am trying to say

    For the Guardian article to draw comparisons with the two cases is very lazy journalism at best. I would like to see more focus on why Matthew Woods and other trolls can’t see the hurt they cause and what help they can get. This blog post is a case in point.


    How do people learn that there are consequences to their actions online? For me this is the real issue not endlessly debating where we draw the line about what is offensive.

    1. Sorry you had problems responding before!
      Totally agree with you about “lol” not making something a joke. I am less sure about the article you linked to regarding free speech. I understood it to mean that you can’t defend a viewpoint or expect it to be granted a public forum on the grounds of “I’m entitled to my opinion” (and I think that’s completely right). But is this the same as indefensible opinions not deserving to be protected by the ideals of the right to free speech? I’m not sure it is – I understood it as “you can’t ward off criticism with “I’m entitled to my opinion” if it’s not a valid, justifiable opinion”, but not “therefore you should not be allowed to express your rubbish non-opinions” (as in speaking to an abstract troll – not you, obviously).
      I think the other piece is great (was it reblogged on the Guardian a while ago?). Agree with you about what the most important issue should be. I know I get it wrong online, too (not in massive troll-fest ways, but until recently most of the writing I did was about dead authors. I’m not used to people I write about actually reading it and I know I have sometimes caused unnecessary hurt to people I disagree with).

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