A recent ruling by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) could have ramifications for all of those with websites enabling comments to be posted by readers. The Court ruled that an Estonian news site (Delfi) may be held responsible for anonymous comments that are allegedly defamatory. A representative of digital rights organisation Access argued that the judgement has:
“…dramatically shifted the internet away from the free expression and privacy protections that created the internet as we know it.”
A post by the Media Legal Defence Initiative listed the main reasons why the court came to this decision, which included:
the “extreme” nature of the comments which the court considered to amount to hate speech
the fact that they were published on a professionally-run and commercial news website
the insufficient measures taken by Delfi to weed out the comments in question and the low likelihood of a prosecution of the users who posted the comments.
The timing of this is particularly relevant for me following the coverage of a tragic local incident. Following an attempted suicide by a local woman that led to the death of a man attempting to rescue her, a local news website reported the incident in relative detail, including statements from witnesses (although withholding, at the time, the names of the individuals involved). Sadly this led to a number of insensitive and inappropriate comments being posted about the woman who tried to take her own life. Upon approaching the publishers to request the closing of comments for such a story, I was told that I should report individual inappropriate comments rather than expect them to remove the comments thread altogether.
These two stories raise a number of interesting issues. Who is ultimately liable for content that is published online? Is it the responsibility of the host website to deal with “extreme comments”? Is it the responsibility of the individual who posts the comments? Should there even be any restrictions on what people post online? Should we just accept that everyone has a right to free expression online and that hurtful comments are just manifestations of free expression?
What is your view?
If you’ve got a perspective on the judgement by the ECHR, who should ultimately be responsible for comments posted online or whether any limits in this area are an unreasonable limitation of free expression and would like to write about the issues for Informed, we’d like to hear from you. Articles should be 800-1000 words (although this is flexible) and our normal moderation process applies. If you are interested in writing for Informed, please contact us via submissions[at]theinformed.org.uk.
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In this article, the author raises their concerns about what materials can be viewed as appropriate for public libraries to stock, explains their position regarding why they believe The Sun cannot be regarded as suitable stock for a public library, and outlines why a public petition to remove it deserves support.
I will jump right in and start with the biggest accusation, censorship. It’s a complicated subject and one that will have most liberals squirming in their seats. Where should a line be drawn between free speech /access to controversial publications and having respect for those who do not wish to see such resources? I think that throwing censorship at an argument shuts down discussion rather than opening it up for debate and becomes counterproductive.
Boycotting a product, organisation or even placing embargos on countries seems to be an effective and accepted way in which we use our collective disapproval of an action or product to put pressure on a company and make it change its ways. Yet when the company in question is a newspaper any criticism levelled against what they do is instantly branded as censorship.
Many women feel reluctant to speak out over issues that concern sexism as a torrent of online abuse, including violent threats, often follows and again this shuts down debate leaving concerns about sexism overlooked while mainstream sexism is allowed to thrive.
I am, for the record, against censorship. I respect the right for people to have different opinions to my own and I relish the opportunity to challenge them. I believe that the current rules in which a library operates (CILIP guidelines) work perfectly well for the written word. There is no need to change the way in which we select literature or buy books that may or may not offend the reader. The difference is that the reader can choose whether they want to access the book or not.
When it comes to The Sun that choice is removed. You cannot choose to ‘unsee’ a sexist image blazoned across the front page. It is difficult to avoid the full page soft porn that accompanies each issue, every day and tough not to see the derogatory and eroticised headlines that accompany stories of the crimes frequently committed against women.
To assert that a library operates with no bias, rules or filtering of material is an outright myth. The on-going debate about unrestricted access to the internet is a perfect example. Libraries already filter against materials and websites deemed to be inciting terrorism. This is presumably because we, as a society, believe that terrorism is something that we do not wish to facilitate or encourage and is detrimental to us as a community. I agree with this principle. We have guidelines and an ‘Acceptable Use Policy’ which states “Our network is filtered to block offensive or illegal material being viewed or downloaded in the library”. Again I agree with this policy. The library is a community resource and it aims to be inclusive even going so far as to state that the Council is “determined to remove discrimination”.
I believe that to use the CILIP guidelines for images such as those in The Sun does not keep up with the changing nature of materials available. New guidelines are needed for visual imagery. It is irresponsible and unequal to put the rights of people wanting to view offensive material above those who don’t. Why are the needs of these people not as important when we argue about rights people have in the library environment?
Libraries attempt to avoid displaying offensive materials in line with local needs. They do not distribute leaflets for hate groups, nor do they permit the use of racist and abusive language for staff or public. This is because it goes against our beliefs of what is right in a community. To argue that libraries exist in a vacuum where anything goes in the name of free speech is simply untrue.
Libraries operate on a decreasing budget. Choices are made as to what may “educate and inspire” readers and to provide resources to a diverse community. I am grateful that the library service I work for does not buy The Daily Sport or The Daily Star who along with The Sun were cited in evidence presented at the Leveson Enquiry into press standards as having “a tendency to uphold myths about domestic and sexual violence, prostitution and violence against ethnic minority women; news reporting which implicitly blames women for violence committed against them; and the normalization of images and stories which sexualize and objectify women.”
So what exactly is the problem with The Sun? The Sun has been criticized for eroticizing crimes against women, see recent example of this with the killing of Reeva Steenkamp. The paper regularly objectifies women and distorts news stories suggesting women are responsible for the crimes committed against them. They continually mock women in the public eye by trying to shame or humiliate them into being silent. Clare Short MP and Harriet Harman MP have both fallen prey to this.
It is the normalization of everyday sexism that we need to fight against. 30 universities in the UK stopped selling The Sun on their campuses as they saw a conflict between their own equality policies and the selling of a sexist newspaper. The Sun still exists. People are still free to buy it if they choose but these institutions have decided that the selling of this paper on their own campuses would render the universities own equality policies meaningless.
Likewise Tesco and The Co-op supermarkets made the decision to cover or remove ‘lad’s mags’ such as Nut’s and Zoo because of their graphic front covers and misogynistic content were inappropriate to their wide customer base.
Currently, there is an online petition asking The Sun to remove the Page 3 topless full page image from its newspaper. It has been signed by 189,000 plus people including the signatures of 154 MP’s. The question of if Page 3 has a place in 21st Century Britain has recently been discussed in parliament but it continues to be printed.
“One in three women around the world will be raped, beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused in her lifetime” (2003 Unifem report). The normalizing and possible eroticizing of violent crimes against women and the daily objectification of women in newspapers such as The Sun perpetuate the idea that women in our society are not respected and not taken seriously. Evidence presented to the Leveson Enquiry states “There is much evidence about the media’s role in providing a conductive context for violence against women to occur by condoning, tolerating and normalizing abuse of women”
Bizarrely, The Sun chooses not to show soft porn in their weekend issues as they see these editions as ‘family friendly”. I see my local library as a family friendly environment but am confused as to why The Sun and its soft porn, misogynistic content is accessible every day for all to see.
This article isn’t a criticism of the council I work for, in fact I think the beliefs and guidelines they hold dear on equality are commendable. I do understand the difficult position they are in being bound by the CILIP guidelines but there is a real conflict of interest.
I am delighted that this question and the introduction of the petition highlights an issue which has for too long been overlooked. Libraries need to move with the times and face up to the growing issues surrounding offensive imagery and how it is displayed or accessed. The voices of those who do not wish to be exposed to such material needs to be heard.
The real debate lays in what kind of society we want to live in. Can we accept the existence of offensive materials or publications that we don’t agree with without stocking them? Do the council’s standards on equality come before or after the rights of people wishing to access the materials in question? Do people who do not want to see offensive imagery have the same rights as those that do wish to see it? To say ‘anything goes’ in the name of free speech, is in my opinion a liberal cop out.
*The views and opinions in this article belong to the author and not necessarily represent the views of any Council*