A debate on BBC Radio: What should come first -freedom of speech or freedom from harassment?
A lawyer who was jailed after shouting racist abuse at Air India staff has been found dead just days after being released from prison. Fifty-year-old Simone Burns was originally from Belfast. She was given a six-month jail sentence in April following the incident on a flight from Mumbai to London after she had been refused alcohol. After a video of her outburst went viral, she became the target of sustained internet trolling and abuse.
So what impact can sharing such material have on an individual and what can be done to limit the distress and damaged?
Journalist Ella Whelan and internet and social media lawyer Yair Cohen joined the BBC Good Morning Show to debate whether free speech should be protected at all costs.
It is reported that Simone Burns was a troubled lady and we don’t know the circumstances of her death in any detail, but it looks like the online shaming might have pushed her over the limit.
Ella Whelan: Yes, her actions on the plane were horrible and it’s quite clear that she became the focus of a viral target. I don’t want to be judgemental but it’s obvious that someone is quite troubled if they’re smoking in the aircraft cabin toilets and abusing staff.
So it’s just an unhappy woman and it’s terrible that she’s committed suicide but I think we should not use this case to panic about social media, because the problem with using an instance of suicide, which can happen for a complex number of different reasons, to suggest that we need to implement regulations on social media or on what people can and can’t say to each other will get us into very dangerous territory of censorship and attacks on free speech. You can absolutely condemn actions without banning or censoring them. I think we have a real problem in relation to all kinds of things with people sharing viral videos which then get used to start a pylon on social media. It’s a strange phenomenon that is happening and there is clearly a dark level to it.
Yair Cohen, what are your thoughts on this?
The question for us as a society is how many times do we want to punish someone who has committed a minor criminal offence or who perhaps was a bit silly and did something which is completely out of character? Perhaps they had decided to appear on a live or a reality TV show and did or said something, or were made to be seen as if they behaved in a particular way, which later they regret. For how many years are we going to hold this against them? How hard are we going to harass them, how intensive the harassment needs to be before we actually break them?
As a society we really need to decide how we would like to be treated and how we are going to treat others. And in this respect, there is no doubt in my mind, having assisted dozens of victims of online abuse and harassment that first, social media companies must start to take responsibility for the way their users are being treated on their platform, including self-censorship. Social media companies have a responsibility to their users in a similar way that a school must take responsibility for the way its students are being treated and employer take responsibility for their employees and football clubs take responsibility for the way their fans are treated and treat others. In the name of free speech, we cannot just allow every type of behaviour to keep going on regardless of its social consequences. When it comes to social medial harassment, people are actually dying. How more serious can this get?
A lot of people would have watched these videos, basically having a bit of a laugh at this woman’s behaviour on the plane and it all ended in tragedy. Surely this is not right?
Ella Whelan : The fact that people commit suicide over the scenes, that’s terrible. But freedom of speech must be protected at all costs. I take the absolute opposite view to Yair Cohen as I believe that freedom of speech is the most important thing to defend.
I think there are lots of things that we can do to protect people from abuse online without interfering with free speech. We need to address the issue socially and the kind of culture which seeks to shame and embarrass people which is as I say is not just about individual cases like this. To ban to censor or to shut down social media accounts is a very reactionary way of dealing with a problem.
Yair Cohen: As a social media lawyer, I see the anarchy that is going on on the internet. I believe that this type of extreme thinking in relation to free speech is the type of thinking of the past because things have now moved on and many of us are starting to understand that free speech without limitation is a great thing but when it comes to other people getting hurt but when it starts to affect us, our children, family and friends, this is where we all realise that even free speech needs to be limited to what is socially acceptable. Most of us have started to realise that there are no two such societies. There isn’t an offline society with regulated speech and online society with unregulated speech. There is only one society and one law and the law must apply to the way we behave offline and online equally.