29/07/2013 11:38 BST | Updated 28/09/2013 06:12 BST

Freedom of Speech Does Not Equal the Right to Be a Jackass


Apparently, equal representation of half of the population of the UK on bank notes is too much for some men. The past five days have seen hundreds of threats of rape and death directed at feminist activist Caroline Criado-Perez and that's without counting the thousands of simply abusive tweets. Criado-Perez's crime, via her organisation The Women's Room UK , was her victory in forcing the Bank of England to acknowledge the existence of equality legislation in the UK when choosing who appears on English banknotes. Whilst I personally wanted Boudicca on the £10 banknote, the inclusion of Jane Austen is a significant feminist victory for the recognition of women's achievements.

And, herein lies the problem: feminists are constant targets for abusive attacks online and in real life. Rape and death threats aren't uncommon; for some they are daily assaults. Despite these clearly being illegal, feminists are constantly told to suck it up or ignore the threats or leave social media. Feminists are held personally responsible for being victims of violence, and threats thereof, by men. This is the same for women who do not self-identify as feminists. The mere presence of a woman online is simply enough for them to be threatened, harassed, insulted and stalked, just like in real life. Criado-Perez' experience is only unusual in the sheer volume of threats she received within a very short period of time. She has also fought back and the media has taken her experience seriously.

But, the abuse on Twitter has continued and, in a classic example of victim blaming, Criado-Perez is being blamed for allowing herself to be abused. The common response to Criado-Perez, and all the other women standing up to defend her, is to tell them to get off Twitter. Apparently, if we can't hack threats to be gang-raped, we shouldn't be allowed on any social media. Twitter's own policy on abusive tweets is also quite problematic. Whilst Twitter has just announced they will have a button which takes you to the "report abusive tweets" page, your report which includes personal details can be passed on to the person you are reporting. This does not make reporting abusive tweets easier or safer.

It also does nothing to address the issue of "free speech" which these violent men, and their supporters, claim is being destroyed by disallowing gang rape threats on Twitter.

When did free speech change from being the freedom of religion, the freedom of the press and the freedom to question your government without punishment into the right to be as rude and as offensive as you want to whomever you want without consequence? The obvious limits to free speech like producing images of child abuse, incitement to hatred or violence and the much repeated axiom of not being allowed to shout fire in a crowded theatre have been replaced. Now, a threat of gang rape is considered an important example of free speech to be protected on Twitter and Facebook.

Of course, this construction of free speech doesn't extend to the women being threatened with gang rape, which is why I only support the implementation of a "report abuse" button on Twitter in conjunction with a change in the terms & conditions of membership to take into account the reality of violence against women as outlined by The Everyday Victim Blaming Project . It also requires criminal prosecutions of every single person using Twitter to threaten others with violence. Banning and suspending accounts simply isn't enough. Threatening to gang rape someone is a crime. It is not an issue of free speech so why is it not being prosecuted?

The right to free speech isn't the right to be a jackass . Free speech shouldn't mean that people get to use misogynistic, racist, homophobic, classist or disablist language because they want to without any consideration of the hurt caused to others. Free speech does not mean you get threaten women with gang rape because you disagree with them. Free speech does not cover wishing harm on anyone.

Those of us who use the social construct of free speech in order to critique and challenge do so without behaving like a bunch of abusive nincompoops. That is the real challenge in a civilised society: using the theory of free speech whilst recognising that we will always need to limit it because of the arrogance and ignorance of a few.

We will always need to limit "free speech" to prevent the abusive behaviour of some men.