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Twitter tirades test limits of freedom of speech
Another ill-fated tweeter has received less sympathy than Chambers. Gareth Compton, a Conservative councilor in the English city of Birmingham, was arrested this month on suspicion of sending an “offensive or indecent message” after tweeting an invitation for a journalist to be stoned to death _ a comment he insists was a joke.
The subject of his tweet, newspaper columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, reported him to police. He was arrested and questioned, but has not been charged. He later released an apology for his “ill-conceived attempt at humor.”
Sympathy for Compton was relatively muted. Liberal Twitterites may have felt less comfortable supporting a Tory politician who’d attacked a Muslim woman.
But Harris said Compton’s arrest is equally unfair. He said Compton’s message _ “Can someone please stone Yasmin Alibhai-Brown to death? I shan’t tell Amnesty if you don’t” _ was “obviously not a serious menace.”
Legal experts agree that the law is not keeping up with technology and the ways it is changing communication. Chambers was convicted of sending menacing electronic communication, under legislation originally introduced to protect telephone operators from indecent calls.
Many people have learned that unguarded online comments can be embarrassing. Just ask Peter Broadbent, the Church of England Bishop of Willesden, who apologized Monday for greeting news of the engagement of Prince William and Kate Middleton with a tweet about taking a “republican day trip to France.”
Broadbent apologized and said he’d been unwise to get into a debate “on a semi-public Internet forum,” but his boss, the Bishop of London, said Tuesday that he was being suspended from public duties “until further notice.”
Around the world similar cases, though in different contexts, are testing the limits of what can be said online.
In China, where the Internet is restricted and Twitter is blocked, a woman was recently sentenced to a year in a labor camp for “disrupting social order” by retweeting a satirical message urging Chinese protesters to smash the Japan pavilion at the Shanghai Expo. Her supporters said the retweet was meant as satire.
In the United States _ where the First Amendment right to freedom of speech is seen as a beacon by British civil libertarians _ the National Labor Relations Board is challenging a case in which it claims an ambulance worker was fired for criticizing her boss on Facebook. The board’s lawyer said such comments are “the same as talking at the water cooler,” and so protected by law.
Pryor said such cases show that the legal balance between freedom and responsibility is still being worked out.
Julian Glover, an editorial writer with the Guardian newspaper, thinks it will be a while before things settle down.
The Internet, he wrote recently, is a “life-changing invention that will take time to develop civilized rules of its own” _ just as automobiles were followed by highways and then, after time and pileups, by speed limits.
“The Internet is nearing its speed-limit stage,” Glover wrote. “We can’t guess where this will end, only that the skirmishes have only just begun.”
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