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