US Supreme Court to rule on freedom of speech online

The question of what you can or cannot say online is a constant problem. Reports abound of children who are cyber-bullied relentlessly, even to death. There are hateful, and hated, web sites that traffic in racism, misogyny or other prejudices. Or your run-of-the-mill troll just trying to stir things up.


Now, the US Supreme Court is for the first time considering the case of a Pennsylvania man who posted murder fantasies on his Facebook page and will rule on just what can be considered a real online threat. Does the person who made the post have to consider it a threat, or does it just have to look that way to a reasonable observer?


This Washington Post article discusses in simple language the issues involved in the case which could have far-reaching consequences, and not just for Americans, the Worldwide Web being just that. It has certainly made me think.


We have been following this. It is a hard number to call. Cyber bullying is intercontinental, so how does one deal with a child or group of children who cyber bully somebody thousands of kilometres away who kills themself? When it is local there is no problem. The same goes for any other person and what the Pennsylvania man did he may claim are only fantasies and is his (human) right to have those thoughts and make them known to others. Whilst abhorrent in fact, there is a point at which a line must be drawn but then which side should we stand? ISIS have specialists for putting propaganda up on the Web, but whilst what they are promoting is despotic and inhumane it is very hard to tell them that if is what they really believe that they must keep it to themselves. After all the most reactionary, pro-creationist evangelical Christians in the USA have umpteen open platforms and some of those are advocating extermination of Moslems because of what some of them are doing. One side of the line or the other?

For those of us working within the human rights environment the thought of any restriction being placed on the Web is the possible first step into ultimate control of our freedom and privacy. Yes, we know that it has happened for years already, in fact we did not need Edward Snowden to tell us, but good he went public anyway, but going down the path to put all advantage in the hands of the powers that be? That may be the slippery slope to total censorship and well as overseeing our every word.

So, I am not sure where I stand on this question. Sure, the man is a nutter and somehow needs to be stopped but the platform he is using need not be the way to do that. A social network potentially has more than enough control at hand to deal with it more subtly than by letting the US Supreme Court set a precedent that could take us who knows where.