The Castan Centre for Human Rights Law Presents

The Castan Centre for Human Rights Law presents

The 2011 Writing for Human Rights
Secondary Schools Essay Competition

“Social media is free speech gone mad“

Schools Information Kit


The annual Castan Centre Writing for Human Rights essay competition gives year 10, 11 and 12 students the chance to learn about human rights by highlighting controversial current issues. This kit will give you some hints for writing an essay for this year’s competition.

What is the Essay Topic?

Social media is free speech gone mad

What do you mean by social media?

Social media is internet-based media that is used for social interaction. Examples of social media include social networking sites such as Facebook, Myspace and Twitter, virtual worlds such as Second Life and Sims, and blogs such as LiveJournal and Blogger.

There have been suggestions that social media platforms, in particular Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, were instrumental in the recent Arab uprisings in Egypt and Libya, by enabling protesters to communicate with one another and the world.

Social media has also been criticised, however, because it enables individuals to make inappropriate and damaging comments without limitation. Cyber bullying is a problem that is often cited as a negative consequence of social media platforms.

What is free speech?

Free speech, sometimes called freedom of expression, is the right to express oneself without censorship or punishment. However, not all speech is protected. For example, defaming another person’s reputation is against the law in Australia.

How is free speech protected in Australia?

Everyone has the right to freedom of expression under Article 19(2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Australia ratified the ICCPR in 1972 and it came into force in 1980. Nevertheless, Article 19 has not been enshrined in Australian law and is therefore not enforceable here. However, the High Court has found an implied freedom of political speech in the Constitution due to its necessity for the proper operation of democracy. This right, however, is limited because it only applies to speech made for the purpose of political communication. Section 15 of the Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act 2006 (the “Charter”) also provides protection of freedom of expression, though this right has its limitations under the Charter.

What are Human Rights?

All people have human rights, regardless of where they are or what they have done in their past. Many human rights are protected in Victoria by the Victorian Charter. The Charter protects the rights to life, privacy and freedom of expression among others. A more detailed explanation of the Charter and human rights is included in Part 2 of this kit.

Part 1 – Recent examples of free speech through social media

As you might expect, not everything can be said freely and without consequence in Australia. For example, defamation, threats of violence, blackmail and sexual harassment are illegal. Although most people would agree that free speech is important, there is much debate about whether and how free speech should be limited.

Social media platforms have added a new dimension to this debate by making it easier for individuals to express their opinions while remaining anonymous. Some people would suggest that social media is too unrestricted and that free speech on the internet should be limited.

Below are some recent examples of how free speech has been exercised through social media platforms, with both positive and negative consequences.

Bullying and violence

A young boy named Casey became an instant Facebook hero after a video of him body slamming a bully in a Sydney school was uploaded onto the internet. In the video a boy hits Casey repeatedly, with other school children watching and filming the fight, until Casey slams the boy into the ground. After the video was uploaded onto YouTube, a page in support of Casey was created on Facebook that now has 223,000 likes.

Some supporters of Casey’s actions claim that he has inspired other young people to take a stand against bullies and suggest that Casey should be commended for his bravery. Others argue that the spread of the video online only legitimises physical violence and does not combat the problem of bullying.

Should this sort of free speech be limited? Is it sending the wrong message?

Can you think of another example of violence you have seen via social media?

Cyber Bullying

In 2006,a 13 year old girl named Megan committed suicide after receiving mean messages from a boy she had become friends with through MySpace. The boy’s account, however, had actually been set up by the mother of one of the girl’s friends. While their exchanges started off friendly, their tone changed with the boy accusing Megan of being mean to her friends with the last message sent saying “You are a bad person and everybody hates you. Have a bad rest of your life. The world would be a better place without you.” Megan committed suicide and was found 20 minutes after she received the message. Recently, Blake Rice, the brother of the Queensland flood hero Jordan Rice, was bullied and bashed by other youths who later set up a Facebook page entitled ‘We bashed Blake Rice’.

Does social media just magnify the playground and make it easier for kids to be humiliated in public? Does social media make it easier to anonymously post offensive things about others?

Can you think of another example of cyber bullying via social media?

Facebook Parties

A New South Wales teen had to contact the police after her Facebook birthday party invitation went viral with almost 200,000 people replying that they would attend. She was bombarded with phone calls and text messages from strangers after the information was made public through the invite.

Is social media too public? Does it make it easy for “bad elements” to cause trouble by finding out about events?

Have you ever seen private information become public via social media?

A lawless environment

A 16 year old schoolgirl posted naked and semi-naked photos of two St Kilda footballers on the internet. The situation received great publicity over the internet and in the mainstream media. A court stopped the media from publishing the girl’s identify to protect her, but anyone could go online and find her name through Facebook, YouTube or Twitter in a matter of minutes. The media was also prevented from publishing photographs of St Kilda players that she had uploaded via Twitter, which could also be found using a standard google search.

Is it too difficult to police social media?

Offensive comments and vilification

The St Kilda Schoolgirl generated enormous interest in her story but she was not able to control the fallout, and she was vilified by many people. Every day, people are subjected to extreme vilification on social media. For example, a search of any offensive term on Twitter will reveal a tweet every few seconds using that word. Indeed, in 2010, Facebook removed the group ‘Kevin Rudd = EPIC FAIL’ yet a quick search on Facebook in 2011 comes up with the group ‘Tony Abbott is a F*%#wit’.

Do you think that offensive speech needs to be policed and banned where appropriate on social media?

Can you think of another public figure subjected to widespread abuse via social media?

Employers firing staff over Facebook comments

There have been a number of cases where employees are fired over comments or photos they have posted on their Facebook pages. In the USA, a woman was fired for criticising her boss on Facebook, while a teacher was forced to resign after she posted a picture of herself holding a glass of wine while on a trip in Europe. Increasingly employers will research your Facebook page and other comments you have made though Twitter before deciding whether to hire you or not.

Should you be able to post comments and photos on Facebook without having to worry about losing your job? Is it really appropriate for employers to monitor what their employees say and do on Facebook?

Do you know of anyone who got into trouble at work because of their social media activities?

Arab revolutions

The recent revolutions in Egypt and Libya relied on social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to mobilise individuals and share information with the outside world. In Tunisia, the government attempted unsuccessfully to block internet sites to prevent protesters from communicating with each other and organising the revolt.

Advocates of social media suggest that its use during the Arab revolutions demonstrates the ability of social media platforms to enable oppressed societies to challenge authoritarian governments and create social change. Others argue that the role of social media in the revolutions has been exaggerated.

Can social media advance free speech in countries with oppressive governments?

What do you know about the use of social media in the Middle East protest movements?

Awareness raising campaigns

Social Media websites are increasingly being used in awareness raising campaigns. These causes range from issues such as HIV/AIDS and poverty reduction to workplace safety and anti-discrimination campaigns. From the creation of videos on YouTube, to Twitter-based fundraising efforts, NGOs and other community organisations are starting to expand their use of social media to help campaign for various causes. In the US, people can even make cash donations to their favourite charity through Facebook as well as via text message. Just hours after the earthquake struck Haiti, a tweet told followers how to donate to the earthquake relief by sending a text message. Within 24 hours, over $800,000 had been raised though text message donations.

Is social media a good avenue though which to fundraise and raise awareness of important issues? Or are other alternative mechanisms more appropriate? Will people become desensitized by these campaigns?

Have you ever been involved in an awareness raising or fundraising campaign via social media?

Alternative news sources

Social media can also be an alternative source of news information. When mainstream media outlets go down, or appear to be biased, readers can turn to social media to get a different account of what is happening. Likewise it has enabled amateur journalists to gain exposure that they would not otherwise have been able to gain though the mainstream media. Now, due to social media outlets, anyone can be an amateur journalist, posting news items and commentary on events. During the Arab revolutions the mainstream media received much of its information from amateur journalists on the ground. You no longer need work for one of the big media outlets to have an impact.

Does this lead to a lower standard of reporting given that the amateur journalists may not be required to fact check his or her story in the same way a mainstream journalist would? Has it created a broader range of news and views?

Do you get news and opinions from non-traditional news sources?

Government services

In the aftermath of the bush fires in Victoria, the government started utilising text message updates to inform people of potential bush fire hazards. The ubiquitous nature of mobile phones meant this information could be sent to the public quickly. You did not need to be sitting by a TV in order to be made aware of danger spots.

Is the government’s use of text message and other social media technology a benefit for the public? Or will the government use this new technology to bombard us with advertising and marketing information?

Have you ever received a public information message via social media?

Part 2 – Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities

Australia is the only western democracy without a national bill of rights, however Victoria has the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act 2006 (the “Charter”). The Australian Capital Territory has the Human Rights Act 2004, and several states are considering introducing similar legislation.

Where Do the Rights in the Charter Come from?

The first major international human rights document was the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was made by the United Nations after World War II. It was then divided into two binding treaties, which have been ratified by most of the world’s nations, including Australia. They are:

o  The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which protects rights such as freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and the right to life.

o  The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which protects rights such as the rights to education, health and work.

The Charter is modelled on the ICCPR, however it has modified or excluded some controversial rights. For example, the Charter does not apply to abortion laws, and the right of self-determination is not included. The Charter does not include ICESCR rights.

How Does the Charter Work?

Public authorities: the Charter prohibits government authorities (known as “public authorities”, for example government departments, local councils, police officers) from violating human rights. This requirement will help to instil a “culture” of respect for human rights into public bodies.

Individual rights: the Charter is not designed to encourage law suits, so people cannot sue someone for a breach of their rights. However, if they are suing a public authority for breaching some other law, they can also argue that the authority has breached their rights.