Free speech vs hate: Where do we draw the line and how do we protect people in Leeds from cyberbullying?

Online abuse, or cyberbullying, has devastating consequences on people across society from prominent figures to children and marginalised groups.

By Abbey Maclure
Saturday, 3rd October 2020, 6:00 am

Trolling can cause anxiety, a sense of hopelessness and at its worst - suicidal thoughts.

The Yorkshire Evening Post's Call It Out campaign has called on social media platforms to take accountability seriously, sharing real-life experiences of online abuse suffered by people in Leeds.

But online media platforms are faced with the challenge of holding perpetrators of bullying and hate speech to account, while protecting the right to free speech and difference of opinion which is integral to a democratic society.

Free speech vs hate speech: Where do we draw the line?

Paul Wragg, a professor of media law at the University of Leeds, is an expert on press regulation and free speech theory.

He explains that freedom of speech is a principle that applies in law, but not necessarily in the online world as social media companies have the right to sanitise their own platforms.

Professor Wragg said: "In law, freedom of speech is the right to say anything you like, subject to exemptions such as inciting hatred on the basis of a defining characteristic - such as race, religion, gender identity, disability or sexual orientation.

“The difficulty is that it requires the content itself to be an incitement of violence, but also to have an intention behind it - there's no law to outlaw being racist, homophobic or unpleasant generally.

Professor Paul Wragg

"The law is not intended to make people better, it’s intended to protect people from violence.

“The right to free speech is one we hold against the Government, it doesn’t really apply in the online world.

“You can’t claim a right to free speech against Facebook, any more than I can claim the right to stand in someone’s house to have a discussion and have my voice heard."

Charities such as the NSPCC are demanding that the Government makes Online Harms legislation a priority this autumn.

The YEP's Call It Out campaign is asking readers to help play their part in making social media platforms into a better place for us all by reporting abusive online behaviour

The proposed Online Harms Bill will tackle trolling by making web publishers more responsible for user safety online, holding companies accountable to UK law if they fail to act against harmful content.

Professor Wragg said the legislation should focus on protecting victims of cyberbullying and removing content that causes profound physiological harm, rather than policing posts which may cause offence.

He said: “It’s important to differentiate the word harm from the word offence. I see lots of things that offend me - it upsets me that people have homophobic or racist views, I find that offensive because it clashes with my own values.

“However, there are things that genuinely will harm me, because they have a profound psychological effect.

"That may be because they relate to me personally, or because the images or messages are just so horrific I can’t unsee them - for example, a public beheading or images of child pornography.

“Those are the type of things that if I was to come across, I wouldn’t be able to get them out my head.

"What the Online Harms Bill should be doing, and the way it serves us best, is to regulate direct attacks on individuals that cause profound harm.

"This could be threats of violence, which the law already to some extent effects, but it can also be things that the law hasn’t quite got a grip on yet, like cyberbullying in more extreme cases.

"If it was to introduce liability for extreme cyberbullying that results in a profound psychological effect, when it causes suicidal thoughts for example, that’s where the Online Harms Bill can really serve the public.”

Professor Wragg added that although it was important to call out hate speech, media platforms should be careful not to "vilify" people as employers are increasingly taking action against employees who share racist, homophobic or sexist views.

He said: “There are some people who have incredibly hateful views, but there are others that are just ignorant. To deprive them of their livelihoods for that ignorance, I think is a step too far.

“In our campaign to sanitise the public space, we can’t be too heavy-handed."

The Samaritans can be contacted free at any time of day or night, call 116123 or email [email protected], or click here to visit the website.

A message from the Editor:

Leeds has a fantastic story to tell - and the Yorkshire Evening Post has been rooted firmly at the heart of telling the stories of our city since 1890. We believe in ourselves and hope you believe in us too. We need your support to help ensure we can continue to be at the heart of life in Leeds. Subscribe to our website and enjoy unlimited access to local news and information online and on our app. With a digital subscription, you can read more than 5 articles, see fewer ads, enjoy faster load times, and get access to exclusive newsletters and content. Click here to subscribe. For more details on our newspaper subscription offers click here.

Thank you

Laura Collins