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Tuesday 18 October 2011

Caution: Free Speech Ahead!

I'm going to start this post by saying very clearly that I was appalled by the images of the riots in London, Birmingham and elsewhere. Businesses and properties were ruined, people died or suffered injury, and many were subjected to days and nights of terror. It was unforgivable, and it did nothing to help the rioters' 'cause', if indeed there was one. Make no mistake, I have no sympathies for those who rioted. Having made that clear, I now want to draw attention to the fact the powers-that-be seem to be using the understandable public outrage as an excuse for changing sentencing guidelines for their own benefit.
Two young men who posted 'incitements to riot' on Facebook have had their sentences upheld. On the face of it a natural response might be 'jolly good thing too', but maybe we should pause and consider. These young men were given four year sentences, pretty hefty for an online post. Car thieves, drug offenders, shoplifters, burglars etc. receive significantly lesser sentences, and yet they make a career out of causing misery to others.
These two young men were stupid. What they did was wrong, even though their actions did not actually lead to a riot, but if posting an inflammatory comment online is going to prompt such strong punishment we had all better watch out. This crosses into the murky and troublesome waters surrounding the slowly sinking island of free speech.
The government responded to the riots by demanding tough sentencing, and they got it. But was that right? There is a sense of shifting the goal posts after the game has started. Is this not simply opportunistic popular politics? It might even suggest that this is a clamp down against protest which, whilst not in anyway akin to that seen in Syria or the like, is worrying nevertheless. Our nation has proudly and bravely fought for the right to democratic rule. Part of democracy is free speech and the right to protest. I can see why a government might find that awkward, particularly at a time of economic uncertainty, but they are vital in a democratic, fair society. The rioters used protest as an excuse for criminality. That is completely unacceptable, but the behaviour of the few should not be used by the government to intimidate and cow a wider, law abiding society.
A noble sentiment, but even so, I think I may just check my old posts to ensure that nothing I've written could be misinterpreted!

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