I am seeing some schadenfreude from some of the more libertarian-minded people in my social media feeds over the news that Goldsmith’s College Student Welfare and Diversity Officer Bahar Mustafa has been charged with malicious online communication and is to appear in court.
But while it may amuse some to see a “Social Justice Warrior” (I still hate that term) hoist on their own petard, there are much more important principles at stake, and anyone who considers themselves any form of liberal ought to understand.
The best words on the subject come from a lawyer from the land of the First Amendment, Ken White of Popehat:
The hashtag “#killallwhitemen” is an in-joke, an example of somewhat belabored signalling and irony with a dash of trolling. It’s meant in part to ridicule overblown rhetoric directed at people like Mustafa. It’s not a true threat (no men are specified, no time or place is specified, no means are specified, and it’s obviously not meant to be taken literally) nor a genuine exhortation to violence (ditto). In a sensible legal system it shouldn’t generate anything more than an eye-roll. But in a feels-based legal system, it’s actionable.
And it teaches a few lessons.
First, you censorious Guardians of Feels on the Left: if you thought that the norms you created wouldn’t be used against your “own side,” you’re fools. It is apparently your theory that the law is sexist, racist, and every other -ist, driven by privilege and wealth, and that free speech norms serve to protect rich white guys — yet somehow exceptions to free speech norm will be imposed in an egalitarian, progressive way. That is almost indescribably moronic. Go sit in the corner and think about what you have done.
I have very little time for the speech-policing identity politics driven by postmodernist critical theory that’s taken root in parts of academia and the media; it’s profoundly illiberal. But if freedom of speech is to mean anything at all, it means the right to speak ill-informed complete cobblers that others may find offensive. And the right to ridicule that ill-informed complete cobblers without mercy.
Sustained targetted harassement and direct threats of violence are another issue entirely, but I have yet to see any suggestions that Bahar Mustafa has engaged in anything beyond playground-level name-calling. The law is a very blunt instrument for dealing with such things. Prosecution sets a dangerous precedent.
Even if Bahar Mustafa takes advantage of freedoms she would seek to take away from others, that’s still not the point. If they come after her, who will be next? Will you risk jail time for calling George Osborne a bellend?
Update: There are suggestions on Twitter that the court summons isn’t in connection with any of those controversial tweets from months ago, but much more recent tweets that could be interpreted as a direct incitement to violence in connection to the Tory conference in Manchester.