Sticks and stones

Seriously ... we're letting a rugby league football player lead the discussion about online freedom of speech in this country?

When I first wrote that sentence, I thought maybe I was exaggerating - that the suggestion a vile tweet to NRL star Robbie Farah about his dead mother had actually caused a political reaction - was really quite silly.

Then I heard no-less than the Premier of NSW, Barry O'Farrell saying on ABC Radio : "I'm going to speak to the Police Commissioner about this specific incident.

"But there's a bigger issue here and that is how the states [can] work with the federal government, particularly the Communications Minister, to see what can be done," O'Farrell said.

NSW Police Minister Michael Gallacher then told a press conference in Sydney Monday morning that Twitter trolls should be arrested.

"Honestly, these clowns who hide behind their keyboards in their mothers' basements thinking that they can send offensive messages ... we've got to empower police with the ability to replace their keyboards with handcuffs."


On the weekend I wrote a column in which I questioned the absurdity of media types (MTs), paid for the privilege of transmitting their opinions to millions, wailing about a miniscule number of "nobodies" and "losers" getting a shot in with their own thoughts on Twitter.

It's intriguing how far my industry disappears up its own bottom at times, with journalists and MTs giving endless oxygen to issues that barely register with the people who consume our product.


A case in point is Twitter - a micro-blogging site used extensively by MTs to snarkily critique the world and self-promote but, when that self is attacked with metaphoric rotting fruit from the raucous groundlings, they get all offended.

Note the glee with which the media runs stories about "thin-skinned corporations" when a multinational's Facebook page is attacked and said company deletes offensive posts to "protect their brand".

Yet when journalists or MTs, who also market themselves as brands, are attacked in a similarly vile fashion, other journalists and MTs rush to sympathise, while the high-profile 'victim' deletes all traces of their often equally offensive involvement in the cyber kerfuffle.

More startling are the calls from these aggrieved elites that "trolls should be bought to account!" or "the laws must be changed!" to protect their featherbed sensibilities.

The very same champions who recoil from suggestions of state censorship and "gummint control of the meeja" seem to think there are two types of free speech: the polite, professional version they produce and the crude, brutal, inconvenient offerings of the general public.

Unfortunately, a couple of paragraphs were cut for space and one of them was this:

This is not to condone hate speech as identified by existing legal statutes - just the easily avoided, nasty crap people tend to say online when they disagree with you.

We have laws to deal with racial and religious vilification, libel, defamation, the revealing of state secrets, as well as advertising standards to reign in corporations ... so to say we have "free speech" in this country is something of a misnomer.

There are always limits to what you can say in a society, although, we do not presently have any law against tweeting nasty stuff about peoples' dead mothers, nor the hosts of reality TV shows.

This is not to say this will always be the case. Another paragraph removed from my weekend column made this point.

Our recent generations' enlargement of moral sympathy to include both genders, all races, most religions, the disabled, the poor - even animals and trees might be our defining virtue.

One hundred years ago you could pretty much say - not to mention do - what you wanted about women, homosexuals and people of other races and religions.

It's almost unthinkable now - which may well be the case in the future with comments the likes of which Robbie Farah has dealt with.

At the moment, though, it is not.

Sportsmen such as Farah often use Twitter to remove the "filter of the media", so fans can get their idols' undiluted thoughts and opinions.

They should therefore not be surprised when the odd turd blows back up the social media spout because they've removed this screen between themselves and the masses.

I think Farah is a great hooker and his performance in State of Origin II this year was almost superhuman (63 tackles, not one tackle missed).

From all accounts he's a good bloke as well, loved his mother and, yes, it's obscene that anyone would mock her.

However, it is currently not illegal to be an insensitive dickhead on Twitter and putting up with grubs like the one who baited Farah is an unfortunate consequence of all of us being able to voice our opinions in a democratic society.

And to insist that corporations like Twitter or Facebook adjudicate on what is "offensive" - outside of legal statutes - strikes me as ridiculous as asking Telstra to disconnect people because they say shitty things over the phone. 

For more than 2000 years, the right to freedom of speech has been a debate that occupied greater minds than Barry O'Farrell, Robbie Farah and Charlotte Dawson.

I'd encourage anyone who cares about this issue to read the likes of Plato, John Locke, Hobbes, Machiavelli, John Stuart Mill and Voltaire to have your opinion enlarged beyond "them trolls need to be stopped".

Noam Chomsky puts it this way: "If you believe in freedom of speech, you believe in freedom of speech for views you don't like".

That includes ones that offend you as well.

Sam de Brito's latest novel Hello Darkness is in bookstores now. You can follow him on Twitter here. His email address is here.