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Big Mouth: Poppycock

Let’s keep the police out of our online conversations, says Gary Marshall

This article first appeared in issue 237 of .net magazine – the world's best-selling magazine for web designers and developers.

If I met them in person, I’d probably want to wallop Linford House and Adrian Smith over the head.

House is the teenager who uploaded a picture of a burning poppy to insult “squadeys”, while Smith posted that gay marriage was “an equality too far”. Both men posted from their own personal Facebook accounts.

House was arrested and Smith was demoted, his pay cut by 40%.

Was House interrupting a Remembrance Sunday parade, upsetting and alarming those who wanted to remember the dead?

Nope.

Was Smith using his employer’s Twitter account to air his views?

Nope.

Is something really horrible happening here?

I think so.

Worrying trend

I don’t have much sympathy with either man’s beliefs: I’m a poppy-wearing, equal marriage-supporting adult who can’t abide people who post poison on the internet. But House and Smith embody a very worrying trend.

In both cases they were punished not because they were alarming or intimidating people, but because they posted opinions that other people didn’t like.

Take Smith, for example. His comment was underneath a news piece he posted to Facebook about gay marriage, and a colleague – a gay colleague – asked him about it on his Wall. He stated his opinion, was reported for it, and his employer demoted him on the grounds that he’d breached their don’t-be-a-bigot-at-work policy.

Personal time

Such policies are admirable, but as the High Court rightly judged, they do not and should not extend to what employees do on their own time on their own computers on their own social media accounts.

If you’re upset by the views your colleagues espouse on Facebook, don’t be their friend on Facebook. Don’t follow people you can’t abide, wait for them to post something that offends you and then run around screaming “I’m offended! I’m offended! Burn the bigot!”

The problem with offensiveness, of course, is that it’s subjective. I’m offended by anti-vaxxers, pro-lifers, political extremists, 99% of YouTube commenters, people who read Mail Online, and 83% of everything that’s ever been published on the internet.

Your list will almost certainly be different. Which one of us gets to decide what’s offensive and what isn’t? (Actually, that’s a trick question. The answer is me.)

If the government wants to create an online equivalent of breach of the peace, something we can use against vicious trolls, that’s fine by me. But we can’t sleepwalk into a world where you can be arrested or lose your job for having the ‘wrong’ opinions, where the full weight of the state descends on people because someone went looking for something to be offended by and found it on Facebook.

Being an idiot, offensive, a bigot or just an awful human being may be unpleasant, but it isn’t illegal. And nor should it be.

Photography: Iain MacLean
 

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