The Right to Free Speech does not include the Right to Libel

Free speech

No, sorry. This is not about free speech.

We have libel laws for a reason – to protect people from having their lives and reputations ruined by malicious lies.

To paraphrase that so-overused quote about Voltaire’s beliefs, I may not agree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it, up until the point where you are shown to have made an obvious mistake, or told a deliberate lie, and where that mistake or lie threatens to damage the reputation of another. At that point, if you are not willing to apologise and retract your statement, then quite frankly you deserve to be sued for libel.

Brendan O’Neill makes much of the premise that free speech must include the freedom to lie, or to make mistakes, and that if a mistake is made it is up to the offended person to defend their position and prove that what has been said about them is untrue. Well, Katie Hopkins made a mistake and Jack Monroe vigorously defended her position and pointed out to Hopkins that she clearly had the wrong person. Hopkins’ refusal to simply accept that she had addressed her tweet to the wrong person, and to immediately apologise, is not an issue of free speech or the right to make mistakes – it is an issue of obstinacy, refusal to admit one’s mistake and quite frankly, wilful bad manners. And having defended her position and pointed out the ways in which the tweet was inaccurate and libellous, it seems to me the only remaining recourse for Monroe to defend her reputation and prove the accusations to be false, was to sue for libel. What is the point of our courts, if not to act as the ultimate arbiter of what is the truth?

I am not stating this out of any love of Jack Monroe or hatred of Katie Hopkins – I actually greatly enjoy hearing and reading much of what Hopkins has to say, and had never previously heard of Monroe. What little I have read about Monroe in recent days makes me pretty certain I would not like her, were I to meet her – whereas I already do like Hopkins’ straight-talking, don’t-care-who-I-offend approach.

But this is not a case of whose opinion I most care for – it is about the principle that nobody should be allowed to continue to defame another person once they have been shown to be in the wrong. I wonder if all those people who are outraged at what they see as the suppression of free speech, would say the same if this were a man being falsely accused, via Twitter, of being a paedophile? If that man were to respond along the lines of “I most certainly am not a paedophile, I abhor paedophilia and demand that you retract that statement” and the accuser were to respond along the lines of “Well I can’t quite frankly tell the difference between you and the paedophile I intended to accuse” would that man be expected to just let it go, and allow everybody else to continue wondering whether he is, or is not, a paedophile?

Hopkins is free to be as rude as she likes about Monroe but having accused her of defacing war memorials, and refusing to apologise once she had been shown to have made an accusation against the wrong person, she opened herself up to a legal suit and quite frankly, her legal team should be ashamed of themselves for not immediately pointing that fact out to her, and encouraging her to settle, rather than allowing the case to drag out for eighteen months with the attendant exorbitant fees that were then incurred.

And yes, Monroe did, to a certain extent, make a mountain out of a molehill – had she simply left the issue alone after initially pointing out Hopkins’ error, it likely would have been forgotten about within a matter of days. On the other hand, maybe it wouldn’t have done. Monroe could, to this day, still be forced to defend baseless accusations that she goes around defacing war memorials, something she clearly finds abhorrent given her family’s military background.

The tendency of people, particularly on Twitter, to vigorously defend positions which would be utterly indefensible in face-to-face conversation, is frankly ridiculous. I would have had far more respect for Hopkins had she simply said, “Shit, I’m sorry, I got the wrong person” and moved on to direct her abuse at Laurie Penny, for whom it was originally intended and towards whom the accusation of defacing war memorials would have been entirely appropriate given Penny’s previous comments on the subject.

What this case highlights is not a loss of rights of free speech. It is a loss of common courtesy, a loss of interest in the truth and a loss of interest in calling the right person to account. If Katie Hopkins wishes to continue expressing her views in such strong terms, and being respected for doing so, then the least she can do is show that she is interested in getting her facts straight rather than simply slinging mud and hoping it sticks somewhere. And in future, Katie, I’d pick a different legal team, one that is more interested in steering you in the right direction and cutting your losses than in dragging out a court case that you never really had much chance of winning.

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