Comedians and journalists across the land breathed a collective sigh of relief. Common sense – as commentators weren’t slow to put it – had finally come into its own. Behind the cliche, though, lurked a more interesting assertion: that “common sense” could be sensibly applied via existing laws, even in the case of a technology which didn’t exist when those laws were written.
‘Free to speak’
Twitter may have grown astonishingly fast in its six years of existence, with around half a billion users worldwide, but using or understanding it doesn’t yet fall within most “ordinary” experiences. Indeed, when it comes to most young technologies, words like “common”, “ordinary” and even “sense” can start sounding dangerously insubstantial, and with them the appeal to reasoned consensus that underpines much justice.
With the words of its judgement – themselves a most significant form of action – the court sought to achieve just such a reasoned, universal appeal. Tweets, it observed, can be “expressions of opinion, assertions of fact, gossip, jokes (bad ones as well as good ones), descriptions of what the user is or has been doing, or where he has been, or intends to go.” And this means that, for some users, Twitter “represents no more and no less than conversation without speech.”
This notion of “conversation without speech” is a strange, significant hybrid: one mixing speech’s unguarded spontaneity with writing’s permanence and digital media’s universal accessibility. What it isn’t, though, is something outside the bounds of precedent or analysis. And nor is it something that, for all the apparent maelstrom of tweet-inspired controversies, indicates the need for new laws or hasty layers of censorship.
Quite the reverse. On the same grounds that Chambers’s appeal was granted, threats and abuses - like those against Tom Daley – could be prosecuted. Similarly, in America, Twitter itself has thus far robustly managed to protect its users’ privacy and data ownership under exisiting laws. The greater the social haste, the more a refusal of legal speeding is likely to pay off – while the sensible safeguarding of old freedoms becomes only more important as the technological opportunities to curtail them multiply.
It is this that makes Chambers’s case seem, to me, a particularly powerful and hopeful precedent. While it’s faintly absurd that he was prosecuted in the first place, what has eventually emerged is the welcome suggestion that, far from demanding hasty new legislation, even the radical pace of technological change can be well-served by the informed interpretation of underlying principles.
Or, as the High Court permitted itself to note, “for those who have the inclination to use ‘Twitter’ for the purpose, Shakespeare can be quoted unbowdlerised, and with Edgar, at the end of King Lear, they are free to speak not what they ought to say, but what they feel”.
As ever, the freedom to speak and the freedom from other kinds of speech remain twinned: something that careful laws and good judgements must help nurture into a new kind of common knowledge.