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

16 November 2012

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).

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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.

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  • rndtechnologies786

    Nice thought.

  • Kathleen A Lilly

    The internet is just like any “tool”…it can fix things AND it can break things,i t can put thintgs together and take them apart…you choose!

  • Bill

    Nick, as a fellow NSS member and a bit of a fan of your work I am a little disappointed in this article. You strongly suggest that employers are permitted to extend their controls beyond the workplace. The outcome of the case, and the judges summing up, clearly establish that this is not the case. I have worked in the dreaded H&S (as well as others) management systems for a couple of decades and the problem does not lie with the legislation as such but with the petty, blinkered and small-minded automatons that are found in middle management throughout the country. It is their misapplication of legislation that has led to health and safety going “mad”. Health and safety legislation is a prime example of how poor management in the UK has led to this ridiculous situation where middle management thinks it can impose its personal prejudices in and beyond the workplace. If they are not challenged then they get away with it but unfortunately the people generally responsible for this type of behaviour are de-facto bullies and are therefore likely to ensure any challenge is met with dismissal. It is a problem recognised by the HSE who are trying, with their drastically limited funding, to get the message out that actions must be “proportional” to the requirements. This type of approach is applied throughout but, as I have said, it takes a brave employee to challenge management (unless they have a religious-political case they can get supported by the Christian Law Centre, which are most often not what they seem and only serve to further undermine genuine health and safety issues). I appreciate that your article was not directly health and safety related but these issues are much the same: poorly trained/educated, dumbed-down middle-management with a petty, personal agenda is the real problem. Also, my personal congratulations to Adrian Smith in his successful case, a truly dreadful Orwellian situation to have found yourself in. Personally I’ve never understood the need to invite the church and state into your relationship at all, but then that’s just me. Let’s hope that’s and end to it.

  • andrewm

    You are correct in saying that Mr Smith expressed himself in an extemely reasonable manner.Like you,i am a member of the NSS and a supporter of gay marraige.But even if he’d expressed himself in a more forthright way,I fail to see what this has got to do with his employers.
    You can draw some solace from the judges comments.But his career has still been wrecked.It’s a very good time to be a busybody.

  • Stephen Mynett

    Everyone has a right to their views, however odious they seem to some and this should be a basic human right.
    To blame the internet is ridiculous, we could blame the invention of the printing press for causing Freethinker editor GW Foote to be jailed in 1882 or John William Gott to be jailed in 1921, both for blasphemy.
    It is wrong that the internet is abused this way but to say it is more of a tool of censorship than emancipation is absurd. Their are many atheist groups in the world that use it, albeit in an anonymous way without saying who they are. They have to do that as atheism is punishable by death in many countries. I am lucky, I can proclaim by atheism and all I get back are a few ill-informed arguments and a bit of abuse. To those who face death, one of their few options to interact with like minded people is by the internet.
    It is a great pity that people have to hide their opinions anywhere but when they do we should question those that deny them free speech, not the medium they used to proclaim their views..

  • Eddie

    The problem comes because people confuse the personal and the professional.

    We have seen cases before when people have been sacked for being BNP members, or ‘asked to retire early’ if they are academics who hold views not deemed politically correct about race.

    It is time we grew up on this; and it’s time the authorities stopped seeing branding people racist/sexist/anything-ist because of what they have written online as an easy way of boosting arrest figures, and of (in their eyes) rooting out racism, sexism etc.

    I used to teach in colleges and I can assure you that the education system is ful of sanctinomious pc stormtroopers who seek offence wherever they can and will report someone for racism, sexism etc at the drop of a hat – this will then give them kudos, help their career prospects – and of course ‘prove’ that they are on the side of the righteous (unlike all the nasty sexists and racists – so branded – whose lives they have destroyed). It reminds me of life under communism – when people reported their neighbours and colleagues to the state for expressing the ‘wrong’ opinions.

    People are entitled to their personal opinions, however weird – and frankly, if we want to start sacking those who extreme and bigoted opinions, we’d have to sack most Muslims and black people in the UK – a tiny number of those are tolerant about homosexuality, and many are massively bigoted on grounds of race and religion too (how manhy young Asian girls marry black men eh?)

    I would be perfectly happy for my children to be treated in hospital or taught in schools by people with extremist opinions (just as well really eh?…) That is because I can separate the personal and professional.

    Read some Shakespeare – every play he wrote deals with the conflict between the two, and how one has to ‘seem’ in one’s professional role by reveal ones personal self in a soliloquy.

  • John Allman

    An excellent piece, in which found nothing with which I disagree.

    Where did the money come from, to fight and lose this hopeless case? What bad will now happen, to punish those guilty of such outrageous ill-treatment of a loyal staff member, and the misuse, defending the indefensible, of funds that come, ultimately, from the pockets of the housing trust’s tenants? Nothing, I dare say.

    So, others like them won’t be deterred from doing likewise. How do such knaves acquire the power to persecute the likes of Adrian Smith, and the freedom to squander other people’s money trying to justify such behaviour?

    Those us who use our real names, and even publish our contact details, when just being ourselves online, will become even fewer and further between, lest we become the latest victims. Or else we will become deterred from speaking our minds any longer.

    Two quotes stick in my mind. From an episode of A Touch of Frost, a reference to a character who “wrote graffiti” on her “prison cell walls”, which is an apt metaphor for what we all do, as we enjoy this wonderful modern hobby of being a political animal at home. And from the movie Disclosure, when the hero Tom, played by Michael Douglas, appeared to have fought off a threat, only to receive an email from “A Friend”, that said, “You’re still playing their game.” The battle Tom had won was a set-up, a battle he was intended to win all along, by those who had been conspiring against him, to lull him into a false sense of security, so that he would lose the even greater battle ahead.

    Jesus told his followers to be “as wise as serpents, but as innocent as doves.” I imagine that the ever-innocent Adrian Smith is now somewhat the wiser, I hope without losing his innocence.

    At least an important legal issue appears to have been settled in this case, which has nothing to do with the Human Rights Act, the Christian religion, or homosexuality. I hope that, when I read the judgment, I will find that the case sets a precedent that would be equally useful to any of the following in the future: a homosexual victimised at work by a homophobic employer; a homophobic worker victimised by a pro-homosexual employer, a religious person victimised at work by an irreligious employer, an irreligious employee victimised by a religious employer, a left-winger victimised at work by a right wing employer, and a right-winger victimised by a left wing employer.

    Coming at the end of disastrous week for freedom of thought and expression, what with We Are Norwich failing to support Norwich Reformed Church, and the English Defence League supporting that church, to their embarrassment, on Saturday, and the events on Sunday’s Remembrance Day that inspired my first poem I’ve written for donkey’s years, entitled “Burning The Poppy”, this is really good news!

    • Terry Collmann

      Could someone explain to me how expressing opposition to gay marriage is NOT the same as, eg, expressing opposition to a black person marrying a white person, or a Jew marrying a Gentile? Because it seems to me that in each case the argument is being put forward that someone is “not good enough” to have the rights that everybody else has. So if we allow Adrian Smith the right to say on Facebook that he doesn’t think gays should be allowed to marry, without his employer – who will expect him, surely, to treat gays as equals while he is dealing with them at work – being able to find him guilty of gross misconduct, do we allow him the right to say on Facebook that Jews shouldn’t marry Gentiles?

      • P.j. Denyer

        I agree, but silencing opinions like his drive them underground to fester. Surely it’s better that any of these opinions are met with “Why?”, nothing has done the anti gay marriage campaign more damage than the opportunities to justify their position while anything that can be portrayed as “politically correct censorship” gains them support.

      • John Allman

        @ Terry Collman

        You asked: “Could someone explain to me how expressing opposition to gay marriage is NOT the same as, e.g, expressing opposition to a black person marrying a white person, or a Jew marrying a Gentile?”

        The three cases are rather different.

        Opposition to same-sex marriage is opposition to a change in the law and in a definition of marriage that has been understood for millennia, and worldwide. As it happens, Mr Smith did not express opposition to “gay marriage”, only to religious groups being obliged to conduct same-sex marriages on their premises, which is actually the position of the British government and (for example) Peter Tatchell.

        I disagree with opposition to interracial marriage. This is to be expected, since I am the white widower of a deceased black South African wife myself. However, I’d support vigorously the right of a worker to express opposition to interracial marriage in his private life, without being victimised at work by an intolerant employer for that opinion.

        I have some sympathy myself with the idea that two people should not get married to one another if they have completely incompatible faith-based worldviews, for example Judaism and non-Judaism. That is the official teaching of most of Christianity, and probably also of many strands of Judaism. It isn’t acceptable for employers to victimise staff who think that marriage outside one’s own faith community is unwise.

        I shudder to think that there are people like you, who apparently think that an employer should be allowed to sack a worker, merely for saying, in his private life, including on Facebook, that Jews shouldn’t marry gentiles, that Moslems shouldn’t marry non-Moslems, or that Christians shouldn’t marry non-Christians. You seem to have no understanding of what freedom is. The word “extremist” comes to mind.

        • Terry Collmann

          Because I AM a Gentile married to a Jew, and if I had to deal professionally with someone who I knew had expressed an opinion against marriages like mine, I would be rightly suspicious that I might not be treated by that person in the same way as that person would treat other people. Similarly, someone who was gay would be entitled to feel that their treatment by Mr Smith, after his open comments about same-sex marriages, would not necessarily be the same as the treatment Mr Smith would extend to a heterosexual married couple. His sufficient dislike of gay people that he feels churches should be free to refuse to conduct marriages between gay couples is inevitably going to influence his dealings with gay people in his work. His employer is entitled to take that into account. And yes I do understand what freedom is – freedom is being allowed to marry in a church if you want to, whether you’re gay or straight. Mr Smith wants to restrict gay people’s freedom to do that. The word “extremist” comes to mind.

          • John Allman

            If we allow your way of thinking to prevail, nobody who says (for example) that he cannot understand why some people want to have tattoos (or who dislikes Marmite), would be able to get a job, lest a colleague with tattoos (or who likes Marmite) became as “suspicious” as you are (or perhaps “paranoid” wouldn’t be putting it too strongly) that he or she might not be treated in the same way as people without tattoos (or who dislike Marmite).

            Freedom isn’t being allowed to be married in any church you want, any more than it is my right to come and live in your house. Your definition of what freedom “is”, would be slavery for any priest, rabbi or imam whom you want to officiate at your wedding, who was unwilling to do so. The world does not revolve around you.

            Have a look at the satirical slogan underneath the Trafford Housing Trust logo on my blog, and then do some proper, joined-up thinking.


            • Terry Collmann

              So you’ll be backing the bus driver who refused to driver a bus that carried an advert he disagreed with, then?


              Marmite and tattoos analogies are false. Liking Marmite or wearing
              tattoos does not equate to being gay and desiring the same rights that
              straight people have.

              If you came to my house as a dinner guest
              and expressed views I found abhorrent, would I not have the right to ask
              you to leave? If you came to my house as a cleaner and expressed the
              same views, would I now no longer have the right to ask you to leave
              because I was employing you?

              According to you, all views are deserving of equal treatment. That’s not freedom, that’s putting yourself under the tyranny of any idiot with a vicious mentality. It’s certainly not the ‘joined-up thinking’ to apparently feel you possess.

              • John Allman

                @ Terry Collman

                “Your Marmite and tattoos analogies are false. Liking Marmite or wearing tattoos does not equate to being gay and desiring the same rights that straight people have.”

                You had written, “I would be rightly suspicious that I might not be treated by that person in the same way as that person would treat other people.” I am not saying that liking or hating tattoos, Marmite or sodomy, are analogous in every respect, merely that to be “suspicious” in the way you said you would be of somebody with different tastes, is equally irrational in all three cases.

                “According to you, all views are deserving of equal treatment.” Terry, please stop putting words into my mouth, would you?

  • Andy Dowland

    And if the Tories succeed in their plans to remove what little rights an employee has Mr Smith would not have been able to take his case to court.

  • C Cole

    Surely this case shows that we need some form of legal protection for free speech in this country? Something that goes beyond the human rights act and prevents employers from drafting contracts in such terms. Time for a British Bill of Rights?

  • paulus

    well said

  • Kevin

    I wonder if it is true that companies have always been seeking this power the Internet now gives them.

    For example, thirty years ago an employee could have written a letter to a newspaper that could have been read by his employer. Although the relative number of such letters do not bare comparison with Web postings, another factor at play here may be the proliferation of the concept of a “hate” crime.

    Press reports frequently convey the impression that our thoughts are being policed by the state, with a traditional criminal charge tacked on just for old time’s sake. A recent example would be “racially aggravated harassment”.

    It certainly seems as if technological change is facilitating a Western phenomenon whereby totalitarian monitoring has been “outsourced to the private sector”. Thus we have mobile phone footage of everyday rants being used as evidence against you in court.

    But I think it is the culture that changed first. It seems that a substantial section of ordinary civilians is out to get its “class enemies”.

    • John Allman

      Funny you should say that. I worked for the MoD in 1977. I had a letter published in New Scientist, which was critical of strict need-to-know government secrecy, and argued instead in favour of something that we now have, in the Freedom of Information Act. I was taken off software development, and put onto filing for the three months that it took me to find a job in Civvy Street with a commercial software house.

  • Michael J Freeman

    The net was invented by the US military and built to with stand nuclear attack. All efforts to censor parts are identified as viruses and either destroyed, quarantined or just circumvented by going around. The creative developers of net technology are ideologically opposed to censorship and hardly like to work for censors.

  • Steve

    This is all fine an good when these tools are used by a society to ram through moderation. The concern is (especially in these economic times) that an extremist party will be elected to a national platform and the guns which are now well calibrated will be turned from the fringes of the majority fully onto “minority” groups.
    I wish more people would understand that 1930 wasn’t really that long ago in terms of human evolution. We are a hairbreadth away from a very unpleasant environment for a lot of people.

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