Abuse is nothing new for the senator who has in the past been told - by those who feel it is their function to arbitrate on the opinions others are allowed to hold - that she should have been aborted and hatcheted in the face, that her head should be ripped off her shoulders and stuck where the sun don’t shine. Even if it this is hyperbolic ranting lacking in intent it is still simmering with unalloyed menace, hatred and threat.
Lorraine Higgins, regardless of what political perspective she holds should be as free from fear or threat as any other within society. No ifs or buts, the response of the online freedom of expression lobby should be one of unmitigated support for her right to express her opinion.
Higgins is not some spoofoholic journalist of Comical Ali proportion, infuriated by having her serial lying called out and who trots off, litigiously snorting, down the legal route in a bid to silence her critics. This is a woman with a genuine grievance and a demonstrable rather than a manufactured reason to be fearful. Politicians, despite their reputation for being thick skinned, are not immune from poisonous discourse. While being mindful of the dangers inherent in too readily simplifying complex psychological phenomena, TD Shane McEntee is said to have taken his own life after being targeted by online goondas.
In a bid to drain the poison pens Higgins has introduced a cyberbullying bill. It brings to mind the timeless insight that if every problem is viewed as a nail then the obvious solution is a hammer. The senator argues that it is not her intention to curb free speech but is aimed at “curbing abuse and threats in our online world”.
No doubt her intention is to push back those who use threats to censor others but at root, limiting free speech to protect free speech is a dangerous paradox. Free speech can never be a bully’s licence but why the need for more legislation? As TJ McIntyre of Digital Rights Ireland argued during the emotionally charged atmosphere following the death of Shane McEntee:
Kneejerk calls for "regulation" ignore the reality that social media is already regulated in the sense that the law applies online as it does offline. Where defamatory comments are made online then a defamation action can be brought in the same way as though those comments were made in a telephone call or letter.
Tom Murphy a director of Boards.ie has been subject to quite a lot of abuse over the years. His problem with Lorraine Higgins' bill is that:
it tries to deal with complex social problems through a blunt and poorly defined legal instrument ... It’s not just that almost all the agreeable parts of it are already covered by other laws. It’s not just that it’s utterly unenforceable with our current justice system. It’s not just that it’s so vague and fluffy. It’s that it’s so ill-defined and over-reaching that its interpretation will inevitably have to be left to judges ... Leaving anything to judges is a bad idea in general. This overly broad and poorly worded bill is a god-send to people who like to bully others into silence. Ironic that eh?!
There is little in the bill to suggest that the bullied will gain from it but quite a lot to suggest that those who do quite a bit of bullying for political ends will stand to profit: "it will massively benefit politicians as it currently is written."
This is why it is vital never to become blinkered by the need to constrain bullying and lose sight of the panoramic view so necessary if society in its hierarchical complexity is to be better understood. Lorraine Higgins deserves support but her bill does not. AC Grayling wrote that:
give any government, any security service, any policing authority, any special interest group such as a religious organisation or a political party, any prude or moraliser, any zealot of any kind, the power to shut someone else up, and they will leap at it with alacrity.
Imagine somebody like Pat Rabbitte acquiring a silencer like that for their armoury courtesy of the bill. Anyone pointing out the myriad of u-turns and broken promises would be targeted on the grounds that they caused "alarm" or "distress" to the political scoundrel.