Is our right to say what we want under attack?

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By Simon de Bruxelles, Times journalist

There have never been more ways or more opportunities to share our views in public. We can rant on Facebook, fire perfectly formed, 140-character barbs from Twitter, blog to a pre-selected audience, let off steam on a newspaper comments page or take on the world on a forum.

But this freedom to say what we think to a potential audience of billions is under attack, not just from the authorities in countries like China who see free speech as a dangerous threat to their existence, but from the internet itself.

Facebook recently confronted the Norwegian press over a photograph it deemed to have breached its 'community standards'. The newspaper that published it was told to remove or pixellate the image on its Facebook page. When it refused the image was blocked by Facebook and the reporter who posted it banned.

The photograph was probably the most iconic photograph taken during the Vietnam war. The picture, re-published by the newspaper Aftenposten, showed nine-year-old Kim Phuc running terrified along a country road, her arms outstretched, after a napalm attack.

The reason that Facebook removed the image had nothing to do with politics, the fact it was distressing or to protect the victim's privacy, it was simply because Kim Phuc was naked, her clothes having been burned off her. It has become so hyper-sensitised to sexualised images of children it could not draw a distinction between pornography and the most powerful anti-war photograph ever taken.

Removing the photograph set a dangerous precedent and Facebook eventually conceded as much, but not before also removing a post by the Norwegian prime minister speaking out against the decision to ban it.

The censorship of the Vietnam photograph received worldwide publicity. A similar story that attracted attention in art circles was revealed by my own paper, The Times.

For several years Stephen Ellcock has been building a gallery of themed images on Facebook. He now has over 700 albums of great artworks from prehistoric times to the present day but it was a 500-year-old drawing of the hand of the theologian Erasmus that got him banned.


In an email informing him of the ban but without revealing its reasons, Facebook said the image had breached 'community standards'. Was it the fact the hand appeared disembodied as though it had been severed? Or perhaps someone with a phobia of fingers found it upsetting. We will never know because Facebook won't say but Ellcock's 110,000 followers reacted with fury. They responded by bombarding the website with other great artworks depicting hands.

Facebook subsequently told me the ban had been an 'error of judgment' on the part of one of the moderators who review complaints. What that proves is that someone complained and Facebook took it seriously enough to take action. Ellcock is convinced that it's only because he has so many followers that he was reinstated. Someone with fewer friends would have stayed banned.

The new puritans drew no distinction between naked glamour models, Renaissance frescoes and an old master drawing of a hand. How can they, as they are all offensive to someone? It is not as simple as banning naked breasts, as Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, has done. Islamic art prohibits the depiction of any living creature. How far do we go to avoid offending anyone?

The greatest threat to freedom of expression on the internet and elsewhere is, surprisingly enough, ourselves.


Academics have recently warned of the dangers of self-censorship at universities because of demands for 'safe spaces' for vulnerable students and bans on speakers likely to be controversial enough to upset someone.

In a book of essays entitled Does Academic Freedom Matter? published by the think-tank Civitas they accuse institutions of failing to defend the principle of free speech. By protecting students from ideas they may find offensive they should be encouraged to debate them.

Another other social media site where free speech is under attack is Twitter. Users post messages of 140 characters or fewer. Depending on how many followers the poster has it may be read just a dozen times or fewer. But if the message attracts the wrong kind of attention posters can find themselves at the centre of what has become known as a 'Twitter storm'.

The author Jon Ronson compares being attacked on Twitter to being pursued by a pitchfork-wielding mob yelling 'death to the witch'. He found himself on the receiving end when he wrote on behalf of a woman whose misjudged joke about Aids made her the target of a million death threats, hate messages and obscenities. He had written about her in his book So You've Been Publicly Shamed.

Ronson tried to defend himself but immediately realised it did not matter what he said: the Twitter mob won't listen and there is no right of appeal.

He said: 'There were two days when there was a concerted effort to shame me. The only way to get through this, the only way to survive, was to do the counter-intuitive thing.

'Humans are social creatures and what we want to do is talk, talk back and explain yourself – "Look, you've got it all wrong; this is what I meant" – but if you do that you are screwed. The only thing to do is to be utterly and totally silent. That's what I did I stayed completely silent and eventually it went away.'

So in the age of the internet sometimes the only way to speak up in defence of freedom of speech is to say absolutely nothing.

On 30 September, JEP editor Andy Sibcy will be chairing a Question Time-style panel discussion about freedom of expression at the Opera House as part of the Jersey Festival of Words 2016.

More details are available about the event, which is being organised in partnership with the JEP, at

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