Nick Cohen

The internet is proving to be a tool of censorship, not emancipation

The internet is proving to be a tool of censorship, not emancipation
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The case of Adrian Smith, the Christian the Trafford Housing Trust demoted for politely expressing his opposition to gay marriage on Facebook, is one of the most disgraceful I have come across. Much will be written about the contempt for freedom of speech and conscience Mr Smith's po-faced and prod-nosed employers showed.

Mr Justice Briggs was clearly upset that legal technicalities prevented him from giving Smith more money.

'I must admit to real disquiet about the financial outcome of this case. Mr Smith was taken to task for doing nothing wrong, suspended and subjected to a disciplinary procedure which wrongly found him guilty of gross misconduct, and then demoted to a non-managerial post with an eventual 40 per cent reduction in salary. A conclusion that his damages are limited to less than £100 leaves the uncomfortable feeling that justice has not been done to him in the circumstances. All that can be said is that, had he applied in time, there is every reason to suppose that the Employment Tribunal would have been able (if it thought fit) to award him substantial compensation for the unfair way in which I consider that he was treated.'

I hope that, like the judge, commentators give it to the new breed of witch finders and heresy hunters with both barrels. (And I say that even though I am an adviser to the National Secular Society and a supporter of homosexual equality).

But something may be missed. In democracies, and of course dictatorships, the Internet is proving that it is the friend of the censorious rather than a tool for emancipation. Adrian Smith could never have been hounded in this way 30 years ago. He would have expressed his opposition to gay marriage in his church. Only the congregation would have heard him say, 'I don’t understand why people who have no faith and don’t believe in Christ would want to get hitched in church. The Bible is quite specific that marriage is for men and women if the state wants to offer civil marriage to same sex then that is up to the state; but the state shouldn’t impose it’s rules on places of faith and conscience.' His fellow believers would have nodded their assent, and no one else would have known. His colleagues would not have followed him to the pews and taken down his words as evidence to use against him.

As it was they just had to glance at his Facebook page and cry “gotcha!” The terms of his contract did for him. They show how employers are using the new technologies to enforce controls on thought, speech and conscience no free society should tolerate. Get this (PDF page 6):

'Employees are required to maintain the highest standards of personal/professional conduct and integrity at all times and to be courteous and considerate with all customers, their family and friends, colleagues and members of the public.'

Not just at work, notice, with their colleagues and customers, but 'at all times' with their family and friends too. Presumably if an employee rudely denounces her husband for failing to do his share of the housework, she could be up on a charge. It gets worse (PDF page 16):

'The Trust is a non-political, non- denominational organisation and employees should not attempt to promote their political or religious views.'

Not just at work, mark you again, where the prohibition would be fair enough, but in all circumstances. And how is the Trafford Housing Trust going to enforce conformity of belief on politics and religion? Why through the Web.

Employees, it insists, must not make a derogatory comment about (PDF page 7) 'the Trust, its customers, clients or partners or services, in person, in writing or via any web-based media such as a personal blog, Facebook, YouTube or other such site.' As the luckless Mr Smith has found, 'derogatory' does not mean personal abuse but engaging in the normal political and religious arguments of a free country.

As I keep saying, every time we go to work we leave a democracy and enter a dictatorship. The Trafford Housing Trust is hardly alone. Many employers have realised that the Web allows them to extend the controls of the workplace to what ought to be the robust and disputatious society that lies beyond their well-guarded walls.

Written byNick Cohen

Nick Cohen is a columnist for the Observer and author of What's Left and You Can't Read This Book.

Topics in this articleSocietyfreedom of speech