(FEE) If you ever need a reminder of how important freedom of speech is, all you need to do is look across the pond. The United Kingdom, which doesn’t have a First Amendment, has slowly seen citizens’ free speech rights eroded—and now may soon start imprisoning people for being trolls on the internet.
At question is pending legislation called the “Online Safety Bill,” which ostensibly punishes social media companies that allow harassment. Yet it may be expanded to include new criminal penalties for individuals who engage in mean speech online.
“Trolls could face two years in prison for sending messages or posting content that causes psychological harm under legislation targeting online hate,” the Times of London reports. “The Department for Culture, Media & Sport has accepted recommendations from the Law Commission for crimes to be based on ‘likely psychological harm.’ The proposed law change will shift the focus on to the 'harmful effect' of a message rather than if it contains ‘indecent’ or ‘grossly offensive’ content, which is the present basis for assessing its criminality.”
Other offenses will reportedly be created for “knowingly false communication,” applying to those who “send or post a message they know to be false with the intention to cause emotional, psychological, or physical harm to the likely audience.” The new offenses will also include punishment for social-media “pile-ons,” where groups gang up and are rude to people online.
Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries is reportedly planning on adding these provisions to the Online Safety Bill when it’s introduced in Parliament next month.
This blatant attempt at the censorship of online speech is deeply concerning. The government has absolutely no business punishing people for words that “cause others harm,” such a subjective and slippery standard that it beggars belief. This vague standard could be used to silence just about any speech that one finds offensive. And it surely stifles the free exchange of ideas that leads to social progress.
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Ideas like allowing women to vote, ending racial segregation, and legalizing same-sex marriage were all once considered “harmful” by many. If subjectively harmful or disruptive speech is stifled, progress is drastically held back.
Moreover, the government punishing “knowingly false” speech is deeply disturbing. Firstly, it’s not a black-and-white matter to actually determine what is “true” and what is “false.” There are a million shades of gray and robust debates over factual reality across countless subjects. No one who values freedom should want a government Ministry of Truth determining what speech is “false” and punishing those who spread it.
And this would all have a chilling effect on speech that questions the status quo or the government itself. After all, free speech doesn’t exist to protect popular or uncontroversial speech; such speech is in little need of protection. It’s dissident voices and information that threatens centralized power that is crushed under the guise of “protecting people” from “harmful” speech.
The UK’s new censorship efforts are no exception.
“The laws are highly likely to be ineffective at keeping people safe, whilst actually restricting free speech considerably, as well as creating a chill by making people who don’t really understand the law feel too scared to actually say what they want to say,” said University of East Anglia Law School Professor Paul Bernal. “That’s the bottom line here: the main impact of laws like this will be to restrict legitimate criticism of people in power.”
Indeed they will. Americans should heed the sad example of the United Kingdom as a warning of what fate could await us if we don’t jealously guard our free speech rights.