That’s what British PM David Cameron essentially argues happened in the U.K. riots. Two men received four-year jail terms Wednesday for inflammatory Facebook posts. Never mind that nobody but police showed up for one bloke’s post about a “Smash Down” and the other man created a riot page as a drunken joke.
Just over 1,000 people have been charged with rioting and looting in London alone, and more than double that number were arrested in the street battles that have left at least five dead. Such horrible violence and wanton destruction is frightening, but thus far no arrests concerning social media posts have been connected to actual rioting. Fear and freedom face off.
Shift to American history … Back in World War I, Charles Schenck tried to pass out anti-draft leaflets to recently drafted servicemen. It didn’t matter that he never actually convinced a draftee to oppose the war effort; Schenck was convicted of espionage. Supreme Court Associate Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes argued that such protests created a clear and present danger to national security. Schenck, Holmes said, was as dangerous as someone falsely crying fire in crowded theater. Freedom of speech could be forfeited when lots of people could die from that speech.
Holmes backed off his staunch position within a year but the U.S. Courts held onto the theater metaphor for another 50 years. That’s when the courts adopted an “imminent” standard, separating actual harm from intent. In other words, the threat had to be real.
The British Parliament continues to debate whether shutting down the internet in times of severe unrest is legal or even possible. As in U.S. law, the focus for such action seems to be on imminent danger.
However, the sentences for Jordan Blackshaw and Perry Sutcliffe Keenan, the two men charged with inciting social disorder via Facebook, appear to be more about looking tough on crime than actually being tough. The greater ethical issues beyond the force of law are becoming apparent.
These two Facebook posters exhibited extraordinarily poor judgment. However, imposing harsh sentences on them does not make the British any safer, nor does it address the very real crises that lead to the riots in the first place.