Freedom of Speech v Responsibility for Impact

18 Aug 2012

With a critical proviso I write below, I have a great interest in and passion for freedom of speech which has rarely been so newsworthy. A Russian punk group is jailed for 2 years yesterday for singing a derogatory song about Vladimir Putin in a Moscow Cathedral. Yesterday also, Premier League footballer Rio Ferdinand was fined GBP 45,000 for referring to Ashley Cole as a "choc ice" on Twitter. A couple of weeks ago a 17 year old boy, Reece Messer, was arrested for tweeting what was deemed abusive comments about British Olympic diver Tom Daley. And last month a frustrated airline passenger, Paul Chambers, was charged in the UK for jokingly tweeting he was going to "blow Doncaster Airport sky high". In between all of this, Wikileaks Julian Assange is in the news once more over the political asylum granted by Ecuador, who said they couldn't be certain of his safety in his "courageous attempts to reveal the truth".

The Pussy Riots song and antics offended many people in Russia to be sure apart from Putin. Messer's tweet was insulting to Daley, certainly. Chamber's tweet probably a bit stupid. Ferdinand's mildly racist. And for Wikileaks, whilst some disclosures were fascinating and others the public probably had a right to know, many were highly irresponsible.

But the question remains, were any of them actually criminal? Wikileaks didn't actually steal any state secrets, they were merely given them and decided to publish them. The Pussy Riots didn't actually damage any property. And If you charge Messer and Ferdinand for tweeting things that weren't complimentary, where do you stop? How do you police Twitter? In the Internet age is it even possible to control what is being said anymore?

I am a passionate advocate of free speech and one fantastic thing about the Internet age is that leaders can't get away with things like they used to. The World now holds us all to accountability. But where does free speech rights draw the line? In three words - responsibilty for impact.

Full Permission v Responsibility for impact, a leadership code I learnt a few years ago, means that we all have full permission to say what we want and do what we do, but all of it needs to be balanced with the impact this will have. Without this balancing tool, chaos would rein in the World. No better example of this is Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaad's publications of the offensive cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed a few years ago. Under the "free speech" only bandwagon he had every right to do so. But the impact in the Muslim World was disastrous. Massive riots took place. Western interests were highly threatened. Denmark lost considerable exports to the region. People lost their lives. There was no "responsibility for impact" at all in his actions and the consequences are there for all to see.

Debatably none of the above people mentioned could be classed as performing a criminal act. But the effect of some of their actions were significant. And that principle of full permission balanced with responsibility for impact is one that should affect all of us in all walks of life.

Tweeters who tweet insults for their own self motives is one thing, however; people who carry out actions to raise awareness of injustices, malpractices, corruption or torture an entirely different issue. And long may they continue - the World needs "shit disturbers" who rankle and hold accountable the powerful and mighty. Provided the disturbers do it with full responsibility for their actions.

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