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UK Gov could criminalise social media posts 'likely to cause harm'

Freedom of Speech
2 February 2022
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Online messages considered "likely to cause harm" could be criminalised under vague new offences being considered by the UK Government.

Culture Minister Chris Philp has said "duty of care" offences, recommended by England's Law Commission, are being "carefully considered" as part of a wider strategy to combat online abuse.

They may form part of the government's forthcoming online safety regime, which is designed to tackle various "harms" online, including that which is already illegal, and that which is 'legal but harmful'.

The Law Commission has recommended that any message or post where the sender was “aware of” or “intended” to harm someone should be an offence. No proof of actual harm would be required.

Speaking last year, when the Law Commission first mooted its new offences, a spokesman for CARE warned that "vague and ambiguous" offences will harm free expression:

“The vague and ambiguous nature of these proposed offences is worrying and poses a risk to free expression – especially for Christians and other citizens who may wish to share views that are counter-cultural or unpopular in the current political context.

“Threatening or abusive language should be punished if it appears in the online world, just as it is offline. Nobody disputes this. However, that which is subjectively deemed to be ‘distressing’ or ‘offensive’ should not be a matter for the criminal law.

“We urge Ministers to rethink this particular aspect of the online safety regime, which can be a real force for good if it is legislated for in a focussed and proportionate way.”

In Scotland, similar offences on the stirring up of hatred were robustly opposed by civil liberties groups, lawyers, academics, journalists, police officers, and Christian organisations including CARE.

Scottish Government hate crime proposals would have made behaviour "likely" to stir up hatred an offence, punishable by up to seven years in prison.

Following a huge backlash, the Scottish Government amended the original wording of the offences to make it clear that a person must "intend" to stir up hatred for an offence to be committed.

Concerns remain that the offences could chill debate on contentious issues and see people criminalised with no evidence that hatred was actually incited against a group due to their actions.

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