Freedom of Speech v Barbara Hewson


On May 25th the internet magazine Spiked published an article by Barbara Hewson  – The family courts make a mockery of justice‘. She published a tweet with a link to that article. I saw this and attempted to enter into discussion with her on this public forum, as one of the family lawyers she had dismissed en masse as ‘collusive’ and ‘incompetent’. Her response was immediate and aggressive, she told me to go to bed and ‘blocked’ my account. I responded in manner that was mocking and rude. I am sorry about that. It was fun at the time but it wasn’t constructive and it did nothing to bridge the gap between our positions.

I published a more reflective response via my blog on May 27thThe woeful state of our debate about the family courts part 7: Barbara Hewson’

If I thought Ms Hewson’s initial response to my tweets was bizarre, what followed this blog post was even worse. She made two formal complaints to my Chambers and – astonishingly – directly tweeted a number of prominent Jewish lawyers and journalists to inform them I was an Anti-Semite. She later deleted those tweets – suggesting she realized she had gone too far. But of course, on the internet nothing is ever really deleted. 


Freedom of speech – not just for the speech you agree with.

However, a much more serious issue emerged from our unedifying ‘spat’. This was Ms Hewson’s determined efforts to reduce the audience for my blog post. To understand my concern, it is important to note that Ms Hewson is not your typical abusive keyboard warrior, with limited following or influence.  Not only is she a practising barrister, she is also a prominent contributor for Spiked.

Spiked describe their ‘mission statement’ in this way (emphasis added):

It’s the publication that puts the case for human endeavour, intellectual risk-taking, exploration, excellence in learning and art, and freedom of speech with no ifs and buts, against the myriad miserabilists who would seek to wrap humans in red tape, dampen down our daring, restrain our thoughts, and police our speech.

Well said. If ‘freedom of speech’ is reduced to ‘freedom to say things I agree with’, it is no freedom at all. Sadly, Ms Hewson does not seem to share Spiked’s enthusiasm for freedom of speech. She alleged that my blog post was both ‘inaccurate’ and ‘defamatory’. However, and interestingly, she didn’t make those allegations directly to me or request that I amend the post or take it down.

Shortly after publication of my post on Friday 27th May I sent a tweet with a link, as is my normal practice. It was retweeted by a number of others.

Ms Hewson sent an email to those who retweeted on Bank Holiday Sunday May 29th, demanding that they ‘un-do’ their retweet. When some of the recipients asked – not unreasonably – to be informed what exactly was defamatory about my post, Ms Hewson not only refused to give details but replied to say that she would consider joining them in her proposed legal action against me. And this could carry consequences in terms of costs.

Entirely unsurprisingly, that threat worked and my tweet was subsequently ‘un-retweeted’.

Then, in the second of her formal complaints to my Chambers, Ms Hewson declared that she was giving serious consideration to informing the police of my activities on Twitter.

After I had picked myself up from the floor, to which I had fallen laughing, I got quite angry. This was after all quite an effective tactic of intimidation. Not because she frightened me, but because she was now putting my Chambers to considerable annoyance and fuss in attempting to sort out a complaint that – in my view – was without substance and which should never have been made. The suggestion that anything in my conduct on line or elsewhere merited the involvement of the police was absurd. That the suggestion was made by someone in her position is very worrying.

The Streisand effect

Ms Hewson’s efforts at indirect censorship did not have the desired effect of keeping my views out of circulation. She seems unhappily ignorant of the Streisand effect, where there is a direct correlation between the efforts you put in to keeping something hidden and the extra publicity for the hidden thing you generate by those very efforts.

Between May 27th and June 2nd that ‘defamatory’ post was the most popular on my website. And people weren’t just glancing at it – they were reading it. The post was seen 553 times during that period and the average time spent on the page was 6 minutes and 16 seconds. My original tweet containing a link to the blog post has now been seen 2,043 times and is my third ‘top tweet’ for the month of May. To put this in context, my tweets usually get about 300 impressions. The blog post has been ‘shared’ on line 242 times.

I have no idea how that compares to the analytics for Spiked on line. But its pretty good for my site.

Through out all of this I remain in the dark about what is defamatory about what I wrote. I suspect it is not that Ms Hewson is unwilling to tell me – but that she is unable to tell me. Because my original blog post isn’t defamatory. And I am more than happy to defend it in open court.


Debate and discussion – now dead in the water?

But what on earth are we coming to when the honest expression of an opinion about something significant – the family court system – meets with this response? This means that the debate about the family justice system isn’t merely ‘woeful’ as I have long feared, but is dead in the water.

For those who seek a public platform to publish and promote their views, bravery must go hand in hand with good judgment and reflection. Otherwise ‘bravery’ can easily slip into bullying cruelty on line or even worse – into a reckless assault upon our essential freedoms. The greater the status and influence of the person seeking to restrict others’ freedom of speech, the greater the danger that person poses.

Of course our freedoms are not limitless. The rights of your fist end where my nose begins. We have to engage in constant and sensitive recallibrations of our freedoms and our responsibilities and how they intertwine.

But I suggest that any attempts to limit the activities of your fist vis a vis my nose should come from the law , not the wrath of an individual. The criminal law can deal with threats and harassment, the civil law can deal with defamation. A further avenue for those of us in regulated professions can be to make complaint to the appropriate regulatory body.

Respect for essential freedoms cannot turn simply on whether a particular individual is upset and offended. The evil consequences of that are very clear. I agree Ms Hewson’s right to be wrong must be protected. I have disagreed with her – not attempted to silence her or get her arrested.  But sadly, it seems she does not accord me the same respect and seeks to erode my freedom of speech in a particularly heavy handed and unpleasant way.

Bullying isn’t great – but hypocrisy is worse

Ms Hewson’s attempts to intimidate do not deflect me. At the time of writing it’s June 17th (and at the time of publication it’s August 13th 2016) and I haven’t been arrested or received any court papers, so I will assume her threats are empty. But I also reasonably assume that others of less robust temperament in my shoes over the last few weeks would have been very frightened and distressed. Even a cursory search of her name on Twitter shows that many others already have been frightened and distressed by her behavior on line.

Spiked may value this kind of behaviour from Ms Hewson as adding to their ‘edgy’ reputation. But I hope not. Rather, I hope that this whole sorry tale gives them some pause for thought about exactly whom they wish to support as a contributor to their site.

The family justice system impacts on the lives of many. It tries to protect the vulnerable against the imposition of unfair or abusive interference with their private lives, from either the State or other individuals. That it functions well is necessary. That it often falls short of what we need is sadly clear and worthy of debate.

No one has the right to try and stifle open and honest debate about something so important. Not least someone who claims to support freedom of speech.

I can understand, in a world where humans routinely make decisions to bomb children and hospitals or permit the mentally ill to buy military grade assault rifles to more easily murder cartoonists or gay people, my ruffled feathers over this may seem to some quite unimportant.

And you are entitled to that view – I won’t threaten you or telephone your boss if you express it. But I think it is important to challenge this kind of behaviour. Because this is how our essential freedoms are eroded, little by little and drop by drop. Until when the time comes that we wake up to what we have lost, there may be nothing left at all to defend.

9 thoughts on “Freedom of Speech v Barbara Hewson

  1. Angelo Granda

    Sarah, I think we should take a careful look at what we had before the internet,facebook ,twitter etc. Remember that we supposedly had free speech then,however there were stiff controls.
    What is the world-wide web really if not a modern,international version of a general library. All the information ( and more) which we used to have to go to the library to access is now available to us online.
    However there were strict rules regarding libraries which don’t exist on the internet. Each book was credited to an author and also to an experienced ,qualified publisher whose responsibility was ,i presume, to read and edit each book and eliminate libel, untruths ,’hate’ statements, incitement to violence,pawn, swearwords etc. etc. Nothing undesirable was allowed to be published as a norm, we had an official book pool available from lending libraries and book-shops. We did have ‘underground ‘ publishers of pawn and the more revolutionary writings preaching anarchism, political revolt and all the rest but these sort of books and mags were not widely available. Trolls would not get their letters printed in newspapers thanks to the editors and were one to hand-out objectionable leaflets one could be traced.It was illegal to distribute free leaflets without ones name and address on the back.Any leaflets,pamphlets placed in the library or in other Public places were checked for content first.
    Foreign literature was checked strictly for content before it was allowed in the library or sold in British bookshops. Any complaints had to be addressed to the Press Complaints Commission or direct to the publisher of a book.We also had one library for juniors and another for seniors. Now a junior can easily obtain adult content.
    We have none of these controls on the world-wide web . So how could we counter the abuses we are seeing? Can anyone suggest anything ?

    I don’t know much about it but would it be possible to make everything accountable like with books and mags? Could we do away with anonymous publishing and anonymous trolling? Before publishing an opinion or whatever on the web, could it be edited for content or is that just not practical? I think the internet would be just as useful to us all ,there would be just as much information available to us but irresponsible misuse of the web would be harder to effect . Misuse would be outlawed.
    Quite who would man the barricades against the evils and whether more responsible publishing is practical or not,i’ve no idea.
    Maybe some computer buff out there could educate us.Is there any way of controlling the web? Or must we put up with it as it is?

    1. Angelo Granda

      It can be said that the controls in place enhanced our libraries and enhanced the value of free speech and there is no reason why controls will detract too much from the electronic media.

      As regards Ms Hewson if she had any reason to object about a tweet or anything written on a website, she would have to make a formal complaint to the publisher. Personal complaints and name-calling would be much less likely or indeed possible if the moderator did the job properly.

    2. Sarah Phillimore Post author

      You raise a very important point but it wasn’t the one I was dealing with in this post. Hewson is not anonymous but uses her Chambers email address to intimidate people. I think this is wrong, and that no one else really seems bothered, worries me. The threat to freedom of speech is real and obvious.

  2. Pingback: Hewson: We have a problem – online harassment and how we just don’t deal with it. | Child Protection Resource

  3. Pingback: The Uninscrutable Social Media Troll Simon R. Just in conversation with Barbara Hewson about Sonia Poulton. Also conversations with identified false allegator @CJHobbyVictims aka @GayBobby69 aka @ChrissyHissyfi1 aka Robertsaunt65. Also S.V.Phillimore, 9ou

  4. Angelo Granda

    Sarah, I have been thinking about free speech and the twitwitter which has been described by at least one M.P. as a ‘flawed business model’.
    Obviously,i don’t have to tell you there are thousands of users ( i am not one) who,whilst they value the positive aspects of ‘free speech’ online,abhor the trolling aspect. They appear to be contemplating changes to the business model but don’t agree on how it should be done.
    My suggestions ( as one who never uses the thing) is that we examine the essentials of free speech as against publication of articles,blogs etc.
    a) When engaging in free speech,one is able to eject and ignore unruly contributors such as those who swear and deliberately try to disrupt sensible conversation from the room. Hecklers and so on. Thus ,one change would be to enable each twitwitter account holder to delete immediately from a conversation ANY comment which they consider to be from a troll.
    b) When engaged in free, unfettered speech and ‘casual’ chatter, it is not recorded thus in private conversation at least ,no contributor can be held to account later ( perhaps years later) for less than well thought out utterances. By their very nature,tweets are often rushed and impulsive. Thus all conversations should automatically be deleted en masse after ,let us say, 2 hours or 24 hours. Should any one involved in a twitwitter conversation wish to remember any particular detail ,they would have to take steps and make a physical note themselves before the conversation timed out.

    Surely with such changes the right to free speech and conversation will remain but all the contributors protected.
    All comments welcome.

    1. Sarah Phillimore Post author

      Interesting thoughts. Something has to be done as we cannot continue as we are. ‘Free speech’ is being used as a cloak for all sorts of disgraceful and harmful behaviour.

  5. Angelo Granda

    After more thought, perhaps all contributions should be deleted ( timed-out) after 5 minutes!
    When one is chattering in a room with friends and colleagues one tends to change one’s views, regret some impulsive comments etc. and forget previous ones of others very quickly . One doesn’t wait 2 hours.

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