Never read the comments

An edited version of this article appeared in Village magazine, July 2015 edition

Never read the comments.

It’s one of the first pieces of advice journalists share about their online work, and perhaps an adage that someone ought to have passed to Labour senator Lorraine Higgins.

Higgins is the sponsor of one of two private members bills before the Oireachtas at the moment, each seeking to deal with “cyberbullying” and related issues, and which raise questions about free speech in Ireland.LHiggins

In Higgins’ case, among other things, the Harmful and Malicious Electronic Communications Bill introduces penalties of up to twelve months in jail or a €5,000 fine for “harmful” or “malicious” communications.

The extent of its ambition is clearest in section 5 of the bill, which provides that a court may demand that an individual apologise and delete a message on the internet even when a person had been found not guilty of any offence.

Higgins has taken up cyberbullying in as her cause since the European elections in 2014, in which she was a candidate in the Ireland North constituency, when she received several messages on her campaign Facebook page.

During the election, she tweeted a mockup of a Luke Ming Flanagan poster with Dustin the Turkey superimposed on Flanagan’s head, and the slogan “Don’t send another turkey to Europe”. (The poster has since been pointed to by some on twitter accusing her of hypocrisy in her cyber-cleanup campaign.)

Three weeks after the Ming the Turkey episode, Higgins made the news again when she told reporters she had reported death threats to Gardai, who had carried out a security sweep of her home.

Newspaper reports at the time refer to three specific threats which were forwarded to Gardai. Despite several internet searches, only one of the three could be located for this article. The Facebook message, an outpouring of vulgar abuse, begins by addressing the senator as a “POXY traitorous two faced money grabbing bimbo bitch”, and moves on from there. Concluding with a (repeated) threat to “rip off your head and shove it up your hole”.

It cannot have been an easy message to read, and given the nature of political campaigns and the depths to which online debates can sometimes sink, it was far from unique, but it is difficult to see that it makes up a credible threat. It’s an incoherent rant, not a plan of action.

In an interview with Sean O’Rourke last year, Higgins outlined the contents of some of the other messages, including comments that she “should have been aborted”.

She also revealed that she “had an individual who was attempting to blackmail me, but wouldn’t identify what he was attempting to blackmail me about.” (Clearly, we’re not dealing with a Professor Moriarty.)

Higgins’ bill does contain one useful proposal. In a blog, Fergal Crehan, a barrister who also runs The Hit Team, a business which helps individuals “remove sensitive and private material from the internet” notes the provision relating to “revenge porn”, where the law is currently lacking, though noting a data protection/privacy approach might be more effective than criminal sanctions.

The free speech risks were highlighted by senator John Crown, who said the bill could be used to silence Mairia Cahill. Higgins response, that she would be exempt because she had “lawful excuse”, raised the eternal question, who gets to decide which speech is lawful, once some speech is deemed beyond the Pale.

Free speech concerns led to the #KillTheBill hashtag on Twitter, although tweets also noted that the bill seemed unlikely to succeed in becoming law, given justice minister’s Frances Fitzgerald’s comments during the second stage debate that it “has the potential to be very dangerous”.

The Seanad debate on the bill was preceded by news reports that a “troll” had written to apologise to the senator. The letter was reproduced in at least one national newspaper. The writer states that at the time he was “unemployed, stressed, and deeply unhappy”, expresses his sorrow several times, and wishes the senator all the best in the future.

In preparation for this article, an individual on Facebook who appeared to be the author of the letter was identified and contacted, but did not respond to a request for an interview.

It is unclear at time of going to press whether garda inquiries on foot of complaints by Senator Higgins are ongoing, or whether the DPP has reached a decision on prosecutions having received garda files. However it is worth noting either way that garda officers felt able to launch an inquiry under existing public order and harassment laws.