Must We Uphold Freedom of Speech for Everyone? Sadly, Yes

Happy Valentine’s Day everybody. I wish I could offer you a moving story about one-sided obsession turned happily ever after. Maybe a little family redemption and faith or something equally loving. But instead of spreading a written song of passion and care, I’m going to talk about yet another sad social media-related incident. This one in the UK, involving Harry Miller, a former police officer, and a high court ruling.

Anything that makes me have a strong visceral reaction is worth a closer look. So, when I read that UK police just had their collective wrists slapped in a case about social media, free speech and transphobia, I immediately thought – here the police go again. They show up at a man’s job, but they don’t arrest him? Dude, no. They basically caused a scene, issued low key warnings and made veiled threats. Not cool.

Miller “claims an officer told him that he had not committed a crime, but that 30 messages he had tweeted or retweeted over the past year were being recorded as a ‘hate incident’.

It is not known what was in the tweets which were later deleted, though he is known to have retweeted a poem which included the line: ‘Your vagina goes nowhere’.”

Another article said: “For a number of years Harry Miller, 54, used the Twitter account @HarryTheOwl – which has since been suspended – to tweet “extensively” about proposed reforms to the Gender Recognition Act.

In one offensive tweet he wrote: “I was assigned mammal at birth, but my orientation is fish. Don’t mis-species me. F**kers.”

Grrrr-eat. So, you know I’m not supporting Miller’s pitiful social media skills. If you have to delete dozens of tweets, whether you actually wrote them, liked them, or you shared and promoted them, there’s something wrong. Further, even a hint of transphobia, or any other kind of misdirected, unnecessary, pointless spreading of hatred toward poorly protected minority groups immediately puts you on my ‘pay no mind, discredit with impunity’ list.

I don’t – on an emotional level – fully support this person’s legal win. Why? Bottom line, you shouldn’t be tweeting out crap. Live and let live. We can have opinions, and we can share them. But express yourself in a respectful way whether online or in person. Period. We should all be held to that standard.

But even if you don’t, the police don’t have the right to come to your frickin’ job to talk about it. That’s what the ruling was about. “…the high court in London found the actions of Humberside police were a “disproportionate interference” with Miller’s right to freedom of expression.

“… Mr Justice Julian Knowles rejected a wider challenge to the lawfulness of the College of Police guidance, ruling that it “serves legitimate purposes and is not disproportionate”.

“The judge said: “The claimants’ tweets were lawful and there was not the slightest risk that he would commit a criminal offence by continuing to tweet.

“I find the combination of the police visiting the claimant’s place of work, and their subsequent statements in relation to the possibility of prosecution, were a disproportionate interference with the claimant’s right to freedom of expression…”

The ruling was about the police overstepping their bounds. Yes, they had a job to do, a job I support and encourage. That job is not easy, nor is it cut and dried given the subjective nature of online content, the lack of clear cut boundaries and policies for internet commentary, the uncertainty of a man’s intentions vs his actions, etc.

Further, I think widespread legal recourse is where the internet is headed when it comes to content moderation, dangerous, offensive commentary, etc. We’re already seeing signs of it. In South Korea, for instance, I’ve read more and more cases of companies filing charges against people who habitually, cruelly and excessively bombard K-pop idols and actors with hate online.

I think this kind of action will only evolve because there is no other option: People are not going to stop talking crazy on the Internet. We have to establish protections for those who are harmed by their actions.

But the idea that the police would come to someone’s job over opinionated tweets? I can’t get past that. It seems like a minefield ripe for a misstep that could blow up the wrong person, if you know what I mean. And if you do that for one person, you have to do that for everyone, don’t you? Why single him out? Is he the worse offender online when it comes to transphobic tweets? What does the law say?

Now, I haven’t examined all of the tweets in question. Perhaps some of them were violent or otherwise suggestive of potential violence. The proverbial school shooter Facebook prequel no one paid attention to until it was too late. But none of the articles I read – though they were all quite similar and newsy – suggested the tweets were violent, just in very poor taste.

It would be different if the police arrested him. In that case, they simply came to where they knew Miller would be to play a quick spot of “click click, watch your head” because he broke the law. But he didn’t actually break any laws, and perception and appearances can be ruinous on a job – especially for people of color. One misstep, or the perception of a misstep, and your career in an organization is ruined, your livelihood imperiled.

I do not support Miller the man. I’m not empathizing with him or putting myself in his shoes either. It’s the scene I object to as a human. The police were out of line; that’s what’s got me tight.

In the US, the constitution affords everyone the right to free speech. Even idiots. That’s the game. We haven’t come up with a better system. I don’t know what the law is in the UK, but I imagine they have something similar given the courts involvement in this scenario, and that country’s legal efforts to record potential hate speech in the event of a serious crime.

Still, as a citizen of a free nation, and as a person of color with strong opinions, I can’t get past the potential for disaster when one is monitored or targeted by the authorities. It’s great that law enforcement is trying to minimize dangerous situations. I’m sure a good bit of drama and heart ache have been avoided because of police efforts to identify and record hate incidents.

Further, it’s troubling that some believe the court’s ruling in Miller’s favor will set a bad precedent for transpeople, potentially endangering their safety. But let’s face it, they were – are – already in danger. I’m not being flip. I think it’s safe to say, that even if they didn’t have this case, the predators who pose that danger will use any trigger or misguided reason to justify their sorry ass actions.

Miller crowing about “a watershed moment for liberty” post win is mostly overly dramatic posturing, not a death knell for trans people. At least, I fervently pray it isn’t. I actually think the judge was more or less in my camp in that he wasn’t supporting Miller outright. He was denying the correctness of the circumstances Miller found himself in as a citizen with rights: There’s a time and place for everything. Police, yes, do your job, but in this case they crossed the line.

Free speech is an actual thing. It’s not a concept or an idea. It’s a right. Sometimes it takes an ugly tone, but it’s still everyone’s right along with life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Being able to work and tweet without police visits that don’t produce actual legal action is a part of life. Or they should be, no?

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