Old Holborn and the continuing assault on free speech

Most readers (I guess) will know Old Holborn, one of the mainstays of the blogging and tweeting world, and many will be aware that his blog and twitter feed have disappeared, at least for the present, amidst a fog of threats and denunciations.  According to reports, he has been interviewed by the police following a series of tweets concerning the Hillsborough disaster and the murder of Jamie Bulger, with the fall-out leading to a number of other twitter accounts disappearing, most notably the great Obo the Clown.

There really is little to debate here. The police investigation is an insult to freedom. The offensiveness of the tweets is immaterial. Indeed the phrasing of the police statement is indicative of how arbitrary our laws have become. The tweets were “inappropriate and offensive” we are told.

The first term is especially worrying. Whether something – anything – is appropriate is almost wholly conditional on the situation, and given that we are talking about one or more tweets, none of which can be described as threatening in the criminal sense,  then the police have no legitimate function in investigating them. As to whether they were offensive – a dangerously elastic term – I shall concede that many people would be offended by the tweets, but, and here’s the big question, so what?

Taking offence cannot be equated to being criminally victimised. This is at least tacitly accepted by everyone, and there is no real attempt to apply legal sanctions across the board. Rather, certain types of offence-giving are singled out in a haphazard manner, and certain groups of offendees are given privileged status. The recent death of Maggie Thatcher has provided ample examples of acts and comments which, without stretching any definition, could be construed as offensive by many people, such as dancing in the streets in celebration of an old woman’s passing. Others would counter-claim that the tax-payer outlay for the funeral was offensive to them. Again, the apposite retort to issues of offensiveness, insofar as the law is concerned, is a big “so what?”  Adults are supposed to be able to deal with such minor matters without resort to violence, whether of a direct kind or that which is inherent to police action.

It is worth remembering a point made by John Stuart Mill with regard to free speech; that it is the freedom to listen and make up one’s own mind, as much as the freedom to express one’s own opinions which must be defended.

Hubert Selby Jr’s “Last Exit to Brooklyn” was subject to a famous obscenity trial in the 1960s, in which Professor George Catlin remarked: “I cannot imagine anything being obscene if this book isn’t.”  Having read it in part, I have to agree. By my judgement, there is not a shred of artistic merit to be found within its covers, and our culture would not have lost a farthing had it been burnt by the hangman and consigned to ashes.  However, another book of similar vintage, William S. Burroughs’ “The Naked Lunch”, could also be accused of obscenity. Here I would certainly argue that the work has artistic merit, so in order to save “The Naked Lunch” from the flames, I would be forced to protect “Last Exit” as well, having little confidence in the authorities to judge such things as I would, even accepting the legitimacy of judging at all.

In any case, much as I would counsel you all, dear readers, to find something else, something better, to read than “Last Exit to Brooklyn”, I cannot truly claim my exposure to it did me any harm, nor corrupted me in any discernible way, nor that my distaste for the work should rob you of the opportunity to make up your own mind. The resolution is simple: if the book offends, put it down and read no more. Likewise, if a twitter account offends, cease to follow that account. If more action than this is demanded by your conscience, by all means denounce the offender publicly, or take whatever other measures permissible within civil society to get your point across, but to run to the police and seek the use of the implicit violence of the state is quite another matter.

  36 comments for “Old Holborn and the continuing assault on free speech

  1. James
    Apr 22, 2013 at 2:12 am

    “Indeed the phrasing of the police statement is even more indicative of how arbitrary our laws have become. The tweets were “inappropriate and offensive” we are told.”

    That’s a bit of a stretch of the imagination. The police statement said that they were contacted by someone reporting inappropriate and offensive tweets. They didn’t state that the tweets were inappropriate and offensive. Such a statement would prejudice any investigation, surely?

    • Apr 22, 2013 at 6:49 am

      Can someone add a link to the statement? Otherwise. I’ll leave this one with you. Good luck.

    • Apr 22, 2013 at 8:30 am

      Just on the business of blocking or ignoring content deemed by anyone as ‘offensive’ or ‘inappropriate’ there is also the issue of the manner in which this content is published. Old Holborn did not target specific individuals and set out to upset them. He may have reinforced his prejudices when challenged by those he upset, but he didn’t pursue individuals in order to upset them, they found him.
      Frankie Boyle tweeted of Thatcher’s funeral ‘This guest list is a damning inditement of the inefficiency of the IRA.’ Without doubt, many people would find such a comment ‘offensive’ and ‘ inappropriate.’ However, it is difficult to understand why anyone would follow Frankie Boyle if ‘extreme’ views weren’t for them.
      My point is, if Old Holborn had Tweeted at say Jamie Bulger’s relatives, or Tweeted at say some Hillsborough support group, then his ‘enemies’ might have a case. But he did not. They found him.
      The ‘provoked’ threats which many have screen captured by the angry mob who came for him must however be addressed. You can’t make threats of this nature and begin your explanation with, ‘Yeah but he…’
      The case continues.

  2. Parasite
    Apr 22, 2013 at 9:47 am

    Old Holborn was arrested for posting a tweet that offended scousers. I find the way scouse women dress. Every time I am out in London am assaulted by their tack. Can I report them to the police for offending me?

  3. Apr 22, 2013 at 10:04 am

    Two different arguments – “Last Exit to Brooklyn” is tame by modern standards but Old Holborn morphen into another sad little anti-semite hiding behind Libertarianism.

    • Apr 22, 2013 at 10:13 am

      “sad little anti-semite”… allegedly.

      • Apr 22, 2013 at 10:19 am

        I could go further – “banter” is one thing and out and out EDL support another.

        • Apr 22, 2013 at 10:55 am

          You mean out and out EDL support should be what?

          Illegal?

          • Apr 22, 2013 at 11:22 am

            On a basic level they are personality deficient bottom feeders. My point is that “Old H” ought not to hide behind free speech when all he really wants is an audience!

        • AndrewWS
          Apr 22, 2013 at 10:59 am

          The EDL, unlike the IRA, has never murdered anyone. Why should someone be penalised for expressing support for it?

          • Apr 22, 2013 at 1:59 pm

            The EDL seem to incompetent to murder but espouse a far right agenda thus “untermensch” can be murdered! As for the IRA they were a duly constituted guerrilla army.

          • Thornavis.
            Apr 22, 2013 at 8:50 pm

            Eh ? How is wanting an audience not a matter for free speech or are some things too trivial to warrant the freedom to express ?

    • Apr 22, 2013 at 11:23 am

      It is not two different arguments. Free speech and the freedom to listen/read are central to both, and both OH’s tweets and the book are easy to avoid if you don’t want to read them.

      “Last Exit to Brooklyn” is not tame by any standards.

      • Apr 22, 2013 at 11:28 am

        You make my point – I think “Last Exit” tame and “American Psycho” offensive – it is purely subjective. Now to O H – does one have an absolute right to free speech? You think the Shoah “funny”? A glittering career in the police awaits you! Mazel’tov!

        • Richard Carey
          Apr 22, 2013 at 11:40 am

          If that’s your point, I made it myself in the OP. I stated “in my judgement”. However I disagree that it is purely subjective, although it is to a degree.

          As for the second part of your comment, you seem to be straying into the fallacy that to defend free speech implies agreement with whatever controversial or offensive opinion is being given. It does not, and the tactic is used to try to muzzle criticism of attacks on free speech.

          You ask: “Does anyone have an absolute right to free speech?” This depends on what you mean by ‘absolute right’. Certainly under our current laws, the answer is no.

          • Apr 22, 2013 at 2:00 pm

            Free speech in Britain? The world’s largest open prison? Now we agree!

  4. Apr 22, 2013 at 12:33 pm

    I am a big fan of Old Holborn. He has been inspirational in lots of ways and has changed my political way of thinking. Yet, alas, I feel he has brought this fate upon himself.

    As frequently happens when people think anonymity brings them immunity, he went from liberty to licentiousness. His success at remaining largely “under the radar” led to arrogance. Taunting & goading people using the horrific deaths of innocent people – maybe even their friends & relatives – is nothing but sheer spitefulness and bullying. His actions were in many ways no different from desecrating graves with vandalism. Is that free speech too?

    If you defend the right of Old Holborn to bully, taunt & goad, you must defend the right of those bullied & goaded to respond in kind. If you poke a hornets nest you might get stung.

    Because of his churlish & childish actions the internet has lots one of it’s best libertarian commentators. A sad state of affairs all round.

    • Richard Carey
      Apr 22, 2013 at 12:46 pm

      ” His actions were in many ways no different from desecrating graves with vandalism. Is that free speech too?”

      Desecrating graves is not a free speech matter, and it is fundamentally different from the case in point.

      “If you defend the right of Old Holborn to bully, taunt & goad, you must defend the right of those bullied & goaded to respond in kind.”

      That makes sense, but no one’s right to bully is being defended, and only those who chose to follow his twitter feed were exposed to these taunts. Certainly if he gives it out, he should be able to take it, but you are blurring the lines between offensive comments and threatening violence or, with the grave comment, actual criminal damage.

    • Apr 22, 2013 at 4:35 pm

      “His actions were in many ways no different from desecrating graves with vandalism.”

      Yes that’s true, but you fail to mention the rather more weighty ways in which his actions were a completely different fucking kettle of fish to desercrating graves with vandalism!!!

    • John Mann
      Apr 22, 2013 at 7:03 pm

      His actions were in many ways no different from desecrating graves with vandalism.”

      Really? He insulted people. Insulting others is common-place, and while it is morally reprehensible, it is not a crime. Desecrating graves with vandalism is destruction of property, and is a crime.

      “If you defend the right of Old Holborn to bully, taunt & goad, you must defend the right of those bullied & goaded to respond in kind.”

      I am unaware of any allegations that Old Holborn bullied anyone. He may have taunted and goaded using his blog and twitter, but that is not the same as bullying. I have no problem with someone responding in kind – i.e. by taunting and goading Old Holborn via using twitter and the web. I would have a problem with someone bullying him, or threatening him. And I certainly objecting to people seeking to use the law to stop him insulting others and being rude to them.

  5. Apr 22, 2013 at 1:26 pm

    Richard, you have arrived! You’ve made the ThisIsTotalEssex website. Although they’ve called you the owner of Libertarian Home. http://www.thisistotalessex.co.uk/Twitter-outrage-Old-Holborn-police-investigation/story-18770558-detail/story.html#axzz2RCM1NTyP

    • Richard Carey
      Apr 22, 2013 at 1:35 pm

      I am the victim of press inaccuracy. Should I contact Hugh Grant?

      (for the benefit of ThisIsTotalEssex, I am a contributor to Libertarian Home, but not the owner)

      • Apr 22, 2013 at 1:55 pm

        Hugh Grant was the victim of press accuracy.

  6. Apr 22, 2013 at 1:39 pm

    I think you may be being too literal about the grave desecration analogy. Lets – for arguments sake – say that this wasn’t someone causing physical, criminal damage to a gravestone but placing a placard right next to the gravestone. The point is that it’s the WORDS, not the physical damage, which cause the most distress. It is the WORDS that desecrate. And that is their intent.

    Now, it seems to be generally accepted that threatening violence is unacceptable But why? Surely it’s actions that matter. Why is not OK to make someone feel fearful/threatened but OK to make some one feel extremely distressed/upset? Is it OK to bully, goad, taunt & provoke someone – even about the death of their friends/family/associates – as long as you don’t actually threaten to do them any physical harm?

    • Richard Carey
      Apr 22, 2013 at 2:25 pm

      “I think you may be being too literal about the grave desecration analogy”

      Well, you brought it up! But I stand by the point I made. We are dealing with marking out a borderline, and precision is of the utmost importance.

      “The point is that it’s the WORDS, not the physical damage, which cause the most distress.”

      That may be your opinion, but you’d struggle to prove it, If you are right, should all those who have celebrated Thatcher’s death be prosecuted for grave desecration? None of them have committed physical damage, but they have certainly used words. I suspect you would not want to see this happen.

      “Now, it seems to be generally accepted that threatening violence is unacceptable But why? Surely it’s actions that matter.”

      Threatening violence is itself an action.

      ” Why is not OK to make someone feel fearful/threatened but OK to make some one feel extremely distressed/upset?”

      What do you mean “OK”? Are you speaking morally or with regard to the law? The difference is fundamental. The argument for free speech does not involve any support or agreement with the speech in question, it is about whether the law should be used to punish that speech, and prevent other people hearing it or reading it.

  7. Apr 22, 2013 at 2:11 pm

    BTW – Old Holborn is back on twitter, apologising for his absence, and claiming that he was offline while Southport police were helping him with HIS enquiries.

  8. Older and Wiser Holborn
    Apr 22, 2013 at 3:28 pm

    OK, we seem to veering towards the pedantic!

    I brought up the idea of grave desecration as an analogy to highlight the emotional parallel! If someone writes something disgusting on a child’s gravestone or writes it on a placard next to the gravestone or on a billboard outside the graveyard, do you think it is the damage to the gravestone which causes the upset or the words themselves? You can desecrate physical things but these are easily rectified. More damage can be caused by the desecration of something incorporeal – the sentimental & emotional. It seems one of the paradox’s of libertarian thought that we defend the right to free speech, but when it is convenient we often seem to deny that words themselves have any power!

    “Threatening violence is itself an action.”

    Only in the sense that saying pretty much anything is an action – a provocation, an invitation, an amusement, an encouragement, an endorsement etc My question remains – is the emotional distress/anxiety caused by words threatening violence worse than those causing emotional distress/anxiety by some other means [ie, taunting them about the death of someone close to them?]

    Anyhow, I suspect we’re splitting hairs. I would agree with you that the force of the law is unnecessary in this case. But it becomes a recourse for people who feel otherwise powerless. For reasons known only to himself [I suspect arrogance & overconfidence in his own anonymity], Old Holborn decided to make sport out of taunting/goading and – IMHO – harassing/bullying a community of people. They retaliated in kind, using the law as part of their tactics. He, sadly, has only himself to blame and now we are deprived of his often brilliant wit & commentary.

    • Richard Carey
      Apr 22, 2013 at 4:22 pm

      “do you think it is the damage to the gravestone which causes the upset or the words themselves?”

      Ah, but what is the crime? Causing upset or causing damage? The latter surely.

      ” You can desecrate physical things but these are easily rectified.”

      Scrubbing paint off a gravestone, or cutting granite for a new stone are not necessarily easy. Both are time-consuming and cost money. (I reckon you might think this pedantic. I don’t mean to be).

      “More damage can be caused by the desecration of something incorporeal – the sentimental & emotional.”

      Possibly, but you are comparing apples and oranges; damage to a physical object versus emotional upset.

      “is the emotional distress/anxiety caused by words threatening violence worse than those causing emotional distress/anxiety by some other means?”

      This is not the issue. You are focusing on the reaction, rather than the action, and it is the action which is subject to the law. The issuing of a threat of violence is criminal, only because the use of violence is criminal. The distress/anxiety is only relevant because it is a reaction to the crime. I may write more on this to try and (pendanticly!) clarify my position.

      As for OH, I gather he’s back.

  9. Paul Marks
    Apr 22, 2013 at 10:02 pm

    In law there is such a thing as “fighting words” – someone insults you (or, worse, those you love) and you respond with a punch in the mouth.

    But that is not an excuse for STATE CENSORSHIP – which is what this appears to be.

  10. May 11, 2013 at 8:13 pm

    ‘I brought up the idea of grave desecration as an analogy to highlight the emotional parallel!’

    Good to know it wasn’t a straw man, then.

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