Tag Archives: freedom of speech

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.

Why don’t Social Workers Feel Safe About Speaking Out?


And what can we do to help?

This is a post by Sarah Phillimore

The post arises out of an interesting Twitter discussion between lawyers and social workers on Sunday 20th February 2016.

In essence, we were discussing the forthcoming Child Protection Conference, organised by the Transparency Project on 3rd June 2016 in Birmingham ‘ Where Do We Go From Here?’ following on from last year’s successful event: ‘Is the Child Protection System Fit for Purpose?’

What was sobering and worrying for me, is that one of the social workers who came last year discussed how she had not felt safe to reveal that she was a social worker, given what she perceived as an atmosphere at the conference which was very negative and hostile towards her profession. This was alarming as I had naively thought we had successfully worked hard to create a safe and respectful environment to allow people to speak .

During our Twitter discussions the social worker elaborated further about just how draining it is to feel constantly blamed and discredited for the failings of an entire system and how those attacks quickly become personal. She spoke of being ‘hated’ on line and discussed how she had been attacked and vilified to extent that she had to disengage from debate on many occasions.

She raised a further very troubling point; that policies on use of social media set down by local authority employers are extremely strict and in effect prohibit social workers from engaging in even general discussion. This view was confirmed by a number of other social workers on Twitter who pointed out that they were posting anonymously.

This raises for me some very troubling issues; both general and particular.

The general issue – Why can’t social workers speak out?

I clearly have a rosy tinted view about the freedom of speech for social workers as those I have been exposed to recently have been feisty, engaged and very outspoken; see this post on my attendance at the Promoting Humane Social Work Conference in February.

However, I can understand the position is very different for a social worker employed by a local authority who is subject to a strict policy about engagement on social media. No one wants to risk their job or their reputation for a Twitter conversation.

I have not conducted any detailed research into local authority social media policies but my cursory investigations suggest the following:

Superficially social media and the use of it,  is seen as a ‘good thing’: for example, this policy from the Local Government Association says:

The LGA is committed to supporting local government colleagues to help realise the full potential of social media. We believe that, used correctly, social media is a powerful tool helping to drive cultural, political, economic and social engagement. It is also a key communications tool for local authorities and highlights their commitment to openness and transparency.

But it’s not clear that this support is translating into general practice. It is also likely that any existing policies are not a result of long gestation: research in 2013 showed that 43%  of local authorities had no policy about use of social media.

And regardless of the policies themselves, certainly the interpretation of those policies by the social workers on Twitter on Sunday night, was to find them either prohibiting outright, or inhibiting significantly engagement on social media for employees of a local authority.

It was a sobering wake up call for me; I have often complained that social workers won’t speak out and I was disappointed at how few engaged with the first Child Protection Conference. I had not appreciated what forces may have marshalled against them to prevent their engagement. The issues of cost, getting time off work AND perceiving that you cannot speak out and keep your job are pretty powerful forces against your engagement.

The specific point – what can we do to encourage social workers to come to the conference?

I think we need to look at the conference ground rules again with care and make sure the message is going out that everyone who comes is entitled to speak freely and to feel safe while doing so.

We ought to be able to disagree with each other and yet still recognise and respect our essential humanity. No one should feel that a disagreement is a personal attack. We need to experience constructive criticism as an opportunity for change and improvement, not as an excuse to sink further into the culture of blame and shame, which already casts a long and toxic shadow over debate in this area. 

But probably the most important thing is to engage directly with the professional bodies that represent social workers  – what support are social workers getting from their professional bodies? What’s the message they are getting about how and when they can engage?

Because this is vital. We can’t make changes if some of the people crucial to the debate feel scared to talk.

I will see what responses I get and hope to update this post.