A Blaze of Glory? The legal history behind flag burning as free speech

A Blaze of Glory? The legal history behind flag burning as free speech

Happy July 4th!  Perhaps nothing else symbolises America’s Independence Day quite like the American flag, also known as “Old Glory.” So what better day to consider the fascinating legal history which surrounds burning the American flag in protest?

This is my second blog post dedicated to exploring important United States Supreme Court cases on free speech. The first post, Regulating the Raunchycovered the basics of free speech protected by the First Amendment, together with the regulation of pornography under Miller v. California (1973). This post covers the history of flag protection in the United States, and the cultural shifts that led to Texas v. Johnson (1989).

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Unrest followed by Unity: the Revolutionary War and Civil War

Adopted on 14 June 1777, the American flag represents an incredibly wide variety of concepts, sentiments, and political positions. For many in the United States and abroad, the flag symbolizes normatively “good” things in Western culture, such as democracy, freedom, liberty, and self determination.

When considering why the American flag is such a potent symbol, it might be helpful to consider that the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865) not only revived that patriotic attachment to the flag, but expanded and intensified it, fostering a spirit of reverence and devotion (National Museum of American History). By the late 1800’s, flag protection movements had swept across the country in reaction to perceived commercial misappropriation on the one hand, and politically motivated abuse of the flag on the other. 

By 1932, each State had adopted some form of flag protection legislation, which prohibited “publicly mutilating, trampling, defacing, defiling, defying or casting contempt, either by words or by act, upon the flag” (emphasis added).

The Vietnam War was a watershed moment for political protests.

Following the Second World War, American prosperity and patriotism boomed. But by the 1960’s however, the counterculture movement began, marked by widespread revolution against established norms and conventions. In particular, the increasing unpopularity of the Vietnam war led many to question the infallibility of American foreign policy. After American bombing campaigns against North Vietnam intensified in 1965, small uprisings of peace activists and intellectuals on university campuses soon gained national prominence.

Anti-Vietnam war demonstrators burn the flag in Central Park, 1967.

1984: Counterculture against Ronald Reagan.

The Youth International Party or “Yippies” were one such offshoot of the countercultural revolutionaries of the free speech and anti-war movements of the 1960s. During the 1984 Republican National Convention in Dallas, Texas, the Yippies and like-minded groups protested against President Reagan, including his administration’s involvement in Grenada and Nicaragua.

Dozens of protesters were arrested, including Gregory Lee Johnson, whose participation during the protests involved the burning of an American flag. “We wanted to do as much as possible to puncture the whole chauvinistic, Rambo-istic atmosphere around that convention,”  Johnson later recalled.

Johnson was therefore charged with violating Texas Penal Code 42.09(a)(3), which prevented the desecration of a venerated object, including the American flag, if such action were likely to incite anger or offense in others. Johnson was initially sentenced to one year in jail, and assessed a $2,000 fine. After a series of appeals, the case was brought before the Supreme Court for final adjudication in 1989.

The decision and legal reasoning behind Texas v Johnson

In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court held that Johnson’s conviction for flag desecration was inconsistent with the First Amendment, which states inter alia that “Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech.” Of course, the act of burning something is not written or spoken speech (also known as “pure speech”). So how can burning the flag possibly be construed as speech protected by the First Amendment?

The Court held that where the medium or conduct itself is the message, it is a special form of protected speech, known as “symbolic speech.” Put differently, symbolic speech is a nonverbal communication that takes the form of an action, in order to communicate a specific belief or position. 

To be considered symbolic speech, the action in question must be a form of expressive conduct. This requires: (1) that the individual intended to communicate a message, and (2) that the audience was likely to understand the communication.

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Joey Johnson (left) and his lawyer, William M. Kunstler – a civil rights activist known for his politically unpopular clients

The Supreme Court agreed that Johnson burned an American flag as a political demonstration that coincided the Republican party’s renomination of Ronald Reagan for President. The expressive, overtly political nature of Johnson’s action was both intentional and overwhelmingly apparent. At his trial, Johnson explained that he burned the flag because “a more powerful statement of symbolic speech, whether you agree with it or not, couldn’t have been made at that time.”

The Court found that Texas’ focus on the precise nature of Johnson’s expression violated the principle that the government may not prohibit expression simply because it disagrees with its message. This core doctrine of American free speech is not dependent on the particular mode or method in which one chooses to express an idea.

The judgment concluded with what I consider to be a particularly powerful point made by Justice Brennan:

We are fortified in today’s conclusion by our conviction that forbidding criminal punishment for conduct such as Johnson’s will not endanger the special role played by our flag or the feelings it inspires. The flag’s deservedly cherished place in our community will be strengthened, not weakened, by our holding today. Our decision is a reaffirmation of the principles of freedom and inclusiveness that the flag best reflects, and of the conviction that our toleration of criticism such as Johnson’s is a sign and source of our strength.

The Impact of the Supreme Court’s decision. 

It is important to note that the Supreme Court however did not say that the government was prohibited from regulating symbolic speech. State legislatures can indeed constrict symbolic speech, provided that the law both: (1) reflects an important interest unrelated to suppressing the actual message (i.e., the law prohibits the non-communicative aspects of the act in question) and (2) is narrowly tailored to that substantial government interest. 

Because flag protection statutes in 48 of the 50 States did not meet this test, the decision in Texas v Johnson effectively invalidated those laws.

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Gregory “Joey” Johnson holds a flag, June 1989. (AP Photo/David Canto via the Smithsonian)

Lingering controversy

Although Texas v Johnson was decided 30 years ago, public sentiment regarding the treatment of the US flag remain controversial as ever.

Shortly after his election in 2016, President Donald Trump tweeted that “Nobody should be allowed to burn the American flag – if they do, there must be consequences – perhaps loss of citizenship or year in jail!” And only two weeks ago (15 June 2019) Trump tweeted that he was “All in for Senator Steve Daines as he proposes an Amendment for a strong BAN on burning our American Flag. A no brainer!”

While it is true that burning the flag is seen by many as provocative and disrespectful, the right to do so in certain circumstances is protected by settled law. As Justice Brennan said: “We do not consecrate the flag by punishing its desecration, for in doing so we dilute the freedom that this cherished emblem represents.” On that final note, if you happen to see an American flag on this 4th of July, spare a thought for its special role in shaping and reaffirming our rights of free speech!

Regulating the Raunchy? A look at free speech and obscenity under Miller v. California

Regulating the Raunchy? A look at free speech and obscenity under Miller v. California

One of the most interesting aspects of being a technology lawyer is that it necessarily requires a strong understanding of Internet regulation and digital rights, including the right to express yourself online.  As such, free speech is one of my favourite areas of legal history and theory.  Coincidentally, two major US Supreme Court cases regarding free speech were decided on this day —  21 June!

This post takes a look at one of them: Miller v. California [1973].  In a later post, I’ll explore a second landmark free speech case decided on 21 June: Texas v. Johnson [1989].

The Constitution in Court.  

Most people know that the First Amendment of the US Constitution protects freedom of speech. However, it’s actually a bit more complicated than many would guess. In its entirety, the First Amendment says:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Putting the aspects regarding religion, assembly, and petitions to one side, what this Amendment essentially does is prohibit the government from prohibiting freedom of speech. But what does that look like in practice?

Of course, we cannot travel back in time to 1789 to ask James Madison what he meant when he drafted the Bill of Rights. Instead, American Courts have over time developed various methodologies to apply modern facts to something written 230 years ago.

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Miller v. California – to what extent can the government regulate porn, and why should we care?

The case of Miller v. California, 413 U.S. 15 (1973) concerns pornography and whether or not the government is allowed to regulate obscene material. Marvin Miller was the owner/operator of a California mail-order business specializing in pornographic films and books. When his company’s brochures were sent to and opened by a restaurant owner in Newport Beach, California, the restaurant owner called the police. Miller was subsequently arrested and charged with violating California Penal Code § 311.2, which is paraphrased below:

Every person who knowingly sends into California for sale or distribution, or in this state possesses, prepares, publishes, with intent to distribute or to exhibit to others, any obscene matter is guilty of a misdemeanor.

The jury at Miller’s trial in State court had been instructed to consider the pornographic materials in question, and determine if they were “obscene.” The jury decided that they were, and Miller was found guilty. Because he objected with the way in which the jury had arrived at this conclusion, he appealed the decision to the Supreme Court.

Although the Supreme Court ultimately vacated the earlier jury verdict and remanded the case back to the California Superior Court, the matter became a landmark decision and the basis for what is now known as the Miller Test.

Writing the majority opinion, Chief Justice Burger reaffirmed in Miller that obscenity can be regulated by the government, because it is “unprotected speech.” Referring to Roth v United States (1957) and other similar cases, Justice Burger explained that obscenity was not within the area of constitutionally protected freedom of speech either under the First Amendment, or the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. “In the light of history,” Justice Brennan had said in Roth, “it is apparent that the unconditional phrasing of the First Amendment was not intended to protect every utterance.”

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Legal Fun Fact:  The first conviction for obscenity in Great Britain occurred in 1727. Edmund Curll was convicted for publishing erotic fiction titled “Venus in the Cloister or The Nun in her Smock” under the common law offence of disturbing the King’s peace. 

Now that we are clear that the First Amendment does not protect obscenity, the next question is obviously therefore: what is obscenity?  

In Miller, Justice Burger acknowledged the inherent dangers of regulating any form of expression, and said that “State statutes designed to regulate obscene materials must be carefully limited.” As a result, the Supreme Court was tasked with confining “the permissible scope of such regulation to works which depict or describe sexual conduct.”

This brings us to Burger’s three-part test for juries in obscenity cases. Obscenity is now defined as something: (1) the average person, applying contemporary community standards, would find appeals to a prurient interest; (2) which depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct; and (3) whether the work lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific (or “SLAPS”) value. In short, obscenity must satisfy as the prurient interest, patently offensive, and SLAPS prongs.

The Miller test changed the way courts define obscenity, and accordingly, what does – or does not – deserve protection as “free speech.”  

This Miller obscenity test overturned the Court’s earlier definition of obscenity established in Memoirs v Massachusetts (1966). In Memoirs, the Court had decided that obscenity was material which was “patently offensive and utterly without redeeming social value.” Furthermore, the Memoirs decision made clear that “all ideas having even the slightest redeeming social importance have the full protection of the guaranties [of the First Amendment]”.

By adopting the Miller decision, the Supreme Court departed from Memoirs in favour of a more conservative and narrow interpretation of the types of speech which qualify for First Amendment protection. Rather than considering obscenity as simply that which is “utterly without redeeming social value” of any kind, obscenity is now a subjective standard. This offers wider discretion to State legislatures and police agencies, as well as prosecutors and jurors, to decide whether material is “obscene” under local community standards.

Not everyone agrees!  Unsurprisingly, the Miller decision was a narrow one, and split the Court 5-4.

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Chief Justice Burger wrote the majority opinion, with Justice Douglas penning the dissent.

Justice William O. Douglas wrote the dissent and, at the risk of sounding like a total legal geek, I highly suggest taking a quick read of it! One of my favourite excerpts is as follows:

The idea that the First Amendment permits government to ban publications that are “offensive” to some people puts an ominous gloss on freedom […] The First Amendment was designed “to invite dispute,” to induce “a condition of unrest,” to “create dissatisfaction with conditions as they are,” and even to stir “people to anger.” The idea that the First Amendment permits punishment for ideas that are “offensive” to the particular judge or jury sitting in judgment is astounding. 

Nevertheless, despite the dissent and criticism, the Miller test remains the federal and state standard for deciding what obscene. However, the rise of the Internet has complicated matters, not least because the concept of “community standards” is difficult to define given how interconnected we are today.

What do you think? After nearly 50 years, should the Supreme Court reconsider what “obscenity” means? Is the Miller Test due for an update?

Airbrushing history? Photos of Oxford Student Celebrations Raise Questions About Privacy Rights and Journalism

Airbrushing history? Photos of Oxford Student Celebrations Raise Questions About Privacy Rights and Journalism

A former Oxford University student asked image agency Alamy to remove photographs of her celebrating the end of exams. Now, the photographer accuses Alamy of “censoring the news”.  Is this a threat to freedom of the press, or has the woman’s human right of privacy been correctly protected?

The end of exams are a liberating and happy time for university students around the world. At Oxford, students take their celebrations to another level by partying en masse in the streets, covering each other in champagne, shaving foam, confetti, flour and silly string in a tradition known as “Trashing.”

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An Alamy photo of Oxford celebrations from 1968. “Trashing” has become a bit more crazy since the 1990’s.

Speaking to the Press Gazette, Photographer Greg Blatchford explained that during the 2014 Trashing, a student invited him to take photographs of her celebrating on the public streets. Some of the images show her swigging from a bottle of champagne, while in others she is covered in silly string.

Blatchford then sent “about 20” images to Alamy as news content. The former student subsequently stated that she “loved” the images in email correspondence to Blatchford, and even shared them on Facebook. This summer, four years later, the woman contacted Alamy to have the photos deleted. The company removed the images – much to Blatchford’s dismay.

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An Alamy stock image of Oxford University Trashing celebrations. Note: THIS IS NOT ONE OF THE SUBJECT PHOTOGRAPHS.

The right to be forgotten under the GDPR

Because the woman was able to be identified from the photographs, they constitute “personal data” as defined by Article 4 of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Under Article 17 GDPR, data subjects have the right in certain circumstances to compel the erasure of personal data concerning him or her.

For example, if the data was originally collected or used because the individual gave their consent, and that consent is subsequently withdrawn, the company may honour the request for deletion (Article 17(1)(b)). However, a company can also use a “counter attack” if an exception applies. Importantly for news and media agencies, if keeping the data is necessary for exercising the right of freedom of expression and information, they may be able to refuse the request and keep the data (Article 17(3)(a)).

For more details on how the right to be forgotten works in practice, see my earlier post, Now You’re Just Somebody That I Used to Know.

Are journalists under threat from privacy lawyers?

Blatchford explained that although they are now considered “stock images,” they were originally “news” photos and should not have been removed. By deleting the photos, Alamy “are censoring the news. I’m incensed that someone can influence news journalism and censor the past where clearly if photographs are taken in public, with the full consent of participants they can turn around and say ‘sorry, that’s not news’ later. This sets a precedent for anybody to walk up to a news organisation and say I don’t like the pictures of me. Journalists will then start feeling the threat of lawyers.”

In a statement to the Press Gazette, Alamy’s director of community Alan Capel said the images were submitted as news four years ago, but moved 48 hours later to the stock collection. “Therefore we are surprised that this is deemed to be ‘censoring the news.’ As per our contract with our contributors, we can remove any images from our collection if we see a valid reason to do so.”

The university said that participating in trashing can lead to fines and disciplinary action since it is against the university’s code of conduct
The comical images of students wearing sub fusc (formal academic attire) while partying are often published in newspapers around the country in May.

Privacy and press freedom have long been considered competing interests, but that’s not to say that striking an appropriate balance between the two is impossible.

On some level, I do sympathise with the photographer. I also struggle to buy Alamy’s argument that the images are not “news content” and are now “stock images.” The classification of an image should be based on its context, purpose and subject matter – not the time that has elapsed since the event, nor the label attributed to it on a website.

Stock images are, by definition, professional photographs of common places, landmarks, nature, events or people. By contrast, the Oxford Trashing photos are attributed to a specific time (May), place (Oxford), category of people (students), and event (celebrating the end of exams). They are popular for several reasons. Firstly, they illustrate a charming and comical juxtaposition. Although these students attend one of the oldest and most prestigious Universities in the world, they are – after all – entitled to a bit of fun. Secondly, Trashing has received increased press attention in recent years, as students have become subject to complaints fines, disciplinary action, and even police enforcement. These images clearly show, in ways that words alone cannot, matters of public interest.

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In this particular instance however, I think Alamy have made the right decision in deleting the images.

Although the Press Gazette does not name the woman, it does note she is “a marketing director in New York.” It’s entirely plausible that she has valid concerns that the images of her participating in Trashing may negatively impact her reputation and career, or otherwise cause some sort of harm or embarrassment.

She claims that “there was no consent given to publish or sell my photos anywhere. I am not a model nor have given permission to any photographers to take photos of me to publicly display or to sell. This was a complete breach of privacy.” This contradicts what the email records show, but even if she had lawfully consented to the photographs being taken at the time, she is entirely within her rights to now withdraw consent. 

On balance, Alamy probably has dozens – if not hundreds – of images from the 2014 Trashing at Oxford. The likelihood that the images of this woman in particular are somehow especially newsworthy is minimal. Had Alamy refused to delete the photos, the woman would have been entitled to raise a complaint with the Information Commissioner’s Office. ICO enforcement action can include injunctions, sanctions, or monetary fines. Furthermore, Alamy would risk becoming known as an organisation that doesn’t care about privacy laws, thereby damaging its reputation.

Contrary to Blatchford’s concerns, it is doubtful that an organisation would delete a genuinely newsworthy image, simply because someone doesn’t like how they look. The right to be forgotten is not an absolute right to be purged from history, but a right to regain control of how information about you appears online.

For more details on how the right to be forgotten works in practice, see my earlier post, Now You’re Just Somebody That I Used to Know. If you’re interested in how celebrities control images of themselves, see Fame and Fortune: How do Celebrities Protect Their Image?

Header image by Alex Krook via Flickr

France vs Russia in media regulator showdown

France vs Russia in media regulator showdown

France’s broadcasting regulator recently issued a warning to the French division of Russian television channel RT for falsifying facts in a programme about the use of chemical weapons in Syria. The following day, the Russian state media regulator accused French television channel France 24 of violating Russian media laws. As relations between western countries and Moscow deteriorate, France nears passing “Fake News” regulation to hit back at RT, while France 24 risks having its operating licenses revoked in Russia.

RT France’s broadcast on Syria

At least 40 people died earlier this year from exposure to chlorine and sarin gas in the Syrian town of Douma. The attack provoked global outrage and Western governments blamed the attack on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a Russian ally. Within days, the United States, Britain, and France led retaliatory missile strikes against Assad’s suspected chemical weapons sites.

Several days later, RT France aired a segment entitled “Simulated Attacks” during its evening news programme, which dismissed the chemical weapons attacks as staged. Furthermore, RT France dubbed over the voices of Syrian civilians with words they had not said. The portrayal of the Syrian attack in such a manner may be a violation of its contractual, and regulatory obligations under French law.

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Xenia Federova, President of RT France, reportedly has a direct line to President Putin

A Muscovite in Paris

Bolstered by the popularity of its French language website and YouTube channel, RT took the decision to open a Paris bureau after the Élysée Palace refused to provide RT reporters with press credentials to cover presidential news conferences. Previously, the state-backed broadcaster had been criticized by French President Emmanuel Macron as “behaving like deceitful propaganda” which “produced infamous counter-truths about him.” As a presidential candidate, Macron was targeted by a campaign of fake news and hacking attempts from Russia, and he is reported to have taken the affront personally.

I have decided that we are going to evolve our legal system to protect our democracy from fake news. The freedom of the press is not a special freedom, it is the highest expression of freedom. If we want to protect liberal democracies, we have to be strong and have clear rules.

Emmanuel Macron

Nevertheless, when speaking about the channel prior to its launch, RT France’s president Xenia Fedorova commented: “France is a country with a storied legacy of respect for the freedom of expression and embrace of new ideas. RT France will enable the audiences to explore this diversity and hear the voices rarely found in the mainstream media.”

Conseil supérieur de l’audiovisuel (Audiovisual Council, or CSA) has authority under the French Freedom of Communication Act or “Léotard Act” (loi n° 86-1067) to regulate television programming in France. RT only recently entered the French market in January 2018, and like all broadcasters in the country, operates under a contract with the CSA. In its official notice, CSA stated that the Russian outlet violated its obligations under the contract, namely:

  • article 2-3-1 —journalists, presenters, hosts or programme directors will ensure that they observe an honest presentation of questions relating to controversies and disputed issues
  • article 2-3-6 —The publisher will demonstrate precision in the presentation and treatment of news. It will ensure the balance between the context in which images were taken and the subject that they show [and] cannot distort the initial meaning of the images or words collected, nor mislead the viewer.

CSA went on to claim RT France displayed “failures of honesty, rigor of information, and diversity of points of view.” Furthermore, “there was a marked imbalance in the analysis, which, on a topic as sensitive as this, did not lay out the different points of view.”

Although RT France acknowledged a mistake had been made in the French translation of comments from a Syrian witness, it claimed that this was a “purely technical error” which had been corrected. Rebutting CSA’s complaint, Xenia Fedorova stated, “RT France covers all subjects, including the Syrian conflict, in a totally balanced manner, by giving all sides a chance to comment.”

 

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Not amused: standing alongside Putin, Macron stated at this 2017 conference that “Russia Today did not behave as media organisations and journalists, but as agencies of influence and propaganda, lying propaganda – no more, no less.”

 

A Parisien in Moscow

France 24 broadcasts in English on Russian satellite packages, and has about 1,348,000 weekly viewers. In a statement, Russia’s Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media —commonly known as Roskomnadzor identified a violation of media law by France 24 in Russia.

A Russian media source reports that “during an analysis of the licensing agreements in watchdog Roskomnadzor’s possession, it has been established that the editorial activity of France 24 is under the control of a foreign legal entity.”

This would violate Article 19.1 of the Russian Mass Media Law, which was amended in 2016 to restrict foreign ownership of media companies. The law bans foreigners from holding more than a 20 per cent stake in Russian media outlets, effectively forcing them to be controlled by Russian legal entities.

RT’s chief editor Margarita Simonyan said the Roszkomnadzor move was a retaliatory action for CSA’s warning. Speaking to state news agency RIA Novosti, Simonyan explained, “Russia is a big country. Unlike many, we can afford ourselves the luxury of tit-for-tat measures.”

RT is widely acknowledged as the Russian government’s main weapon in an intensifying information war with the West. In respect of media ownership, it is no secret that the Kremlin uses direct ownership to influence publications and the airwaves. Each Russian TV channel is fully or partially owned by the state except for one, NTV. Even so, NTV is owned by Gazprom, the natural gas giant in which the government has a controlling stake.

Because of the constrained political environment, Russian media are unable to resist the pressure from the state and succumbed to the well-known propaganda and conformism pattern according to which they’ve been operating in the Soviet times. The period of the relative freedom of press ended with Vladimir Putin ascension to power, which was too short for the Russian media to become a strong democratic institution.

Index on Censorship

In the wake of alleged Russian interference with American elections and the Brexit referendum, lawmakers now face the challenge of regulating a defiant type of expression. Is this propaganda masquerading as journalism, which should be curtailed or even censored ? Or is RT simply a voice from a different perspective? Should viewers be trusted to make the best decision as the information wars carry on?

In France at least, the road to regulation seems to be preferred. After fierce debate, the French Parliament approved draft legislation to allow courts to determine whether articles published within three months of elections are credible, or should be taken down.

Is posting rap lyrics on Instagram a #HateCrime?

Is posting rap lyrics on Instagram a #HateCrime?

A teenager who posted rap lyrics on Instagram has been convicted of “sending a grossly offensive message over a communications network,” which was uplifted to a hate crime. She has received a community order (probation) and must pay costs of £500 ($700 USD) together with a £85 victim surcharge.

Chelsea Russell, a 19 year-old woman from Liverpool, England posted the lyrics from American rapper Snap Dogg’s song, “I’m Trippin” (NSFW) onto her Instagram account profile, or “bio.” The lyrics in question were ‘kill a snitch n—-a and rob a rich n—-a.’

Russell claimed she posted the lyrics as a “tribute” following the death of a 13-year-old in a road traffic accident. A screen shot of her profile was sent anonymously to Merseyside Police’s Hate Crime Unit, and Russell was brought in for questioning. She attempted to claim that her Instagram was not public as only Instagram members could access it, but the Crown proved in court that anyone could see Russell’s bio.

Russell’s defence lawyer, Carole Clark, claimed that the meaning of the ‘n’ word has changed over time, and has been popularised by hugely successful and mainstream artists including Jay-Z, Eminem and Kanye West. In particular, “Jay-Z used these words in front of thousands of people at the Glastonbury festival.” Clark also pointed out that the spelling of the word ended in an “-a,” rather than the arguably more pejorative “-er.” Nevertheless, District Judge Jack McGarva found Russell guilty and added, “there is no place in civil society for language like that.”

Under section 127 of the Communications Act 2003, it is an offence to send a message that is grossly offensive by means of a public electronic communications network. Section 145 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 provides for an increased sentence for aggravation related to race.

Under the Crown Prosecution Service’s guidelines on prosecuting cases involving communications sent via social media, before heading to trial, there must be sufficient evidence that the communication in question is more than:

  • Offensive, shocking or disturbing; or
  • Satire, parody, iconoclastic or rude; or
  • The expression of unpopular or unfashionable opinion, banter or humour, even if distasteful to some or painful to those subjected to it.
“Freedom of expression is applicable not only to ideas that are favourably received or regarded as inoffensive or as a matter of indifference, but also to those that offend, shock or disturb the State, or any sector of the population.”
—European Court of Human Rights decision in Handyside v United Kingdom (1976)
It may be tempting to see this verdict as an overreach by Crown Prosecution Services, or “political correctness” gone mad. However, the lyrics Russell chose to share don’t simply drop the N-bomb. These lyrics may be understood as encouraging killing and robbing of a particular type of person — ie, black men.

The distinction between “offensive” and “grossly offensive” is an important one and not easily made. Context and circumstances are highly relevant.  The legal test for “grossly offensive” was stated by the House of Lords in Director of Public Prosecutions v Collins [2006] UKHL 40 to be whether the message would cause gross offence to those to whom it relates – in that case ethnic minorities – who may, but need not be the recipients.

Accordingly, there is a high threshold at the evidential stage. The Crown must also consider an author’s rights of expression enshrined in the European Convention of Human Rights. Extreme racist speech is outside the protection of Article 10 because of its potential to undermine public order and the rights of the targeted minority (Kuhnen v Germany 56 RR 205).

Article 10 – Freedom of expression

1. Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers.

2. The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.

Russell’s case brings to mind the similar legal battle of Paul Chambers. Frustrated that his travel plans had been disrupted by bad weather, in 2010 he tweeted about blowing up an airport and was subsequently arrested. His conviction attracted public outroar and became a cause célèbre for freedom of speech activists before being overturned on appeal (Chambers v Director of Public Prosecutions [2012] EWHC 2157).

However, there are considerable differences of fact between Russell’s Instagram bio and Chambers’s tweet. Chambers’s tweet mentioned the weather delay — the all important context — and his “threat” lacked menace, because it did not create fear or apprehension in those who read it. Russell may have been quoting a song lyric, but isolated from any other information, her words could reasonably be (mis)interpreted as a genuine threat.

Unfortunately, only limited information is available on Russell’s case, so it is not possible to fully analyse how the Crown determined that it was indeed in the public interest to pursue prosecution. I would assume however that there were some extenuating circumstances. Perhaps Russell had a history of offensive behaviour, or maybe the prosecution proved that the lyrics were intended to cause malicious upset to a grieving family?

While the legal principles and their application may be uncertain in situations such as these, this case underscores the need for a cautious approach to social media. At times, even though I recognise intellectually that my Twitter and Instagram feeds are “public,” the fact that I share personal insights and photos makes the platform seem perhaps more intimate and secure than it really is. Social media is like any other “community,” for which certain rules of decorum do apply.