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What are the limits of free speech on Twitter?

Caution: not for sensitive readers. 

What are the limits to free speech on Twitter? Is the “report spam” function enough? Should trolls be censured?

In the UK, racist trolling will get you arrested and jailed, as student Liam Stacey discovered recently after tweeting racist comments about footballer Fabrice Muamba and then referring to people who complained as “wogs”. Stacey was jailed for 56 days after being prosecuted under the Racially Aggravated s4A Public order Act 1986.

He initially claimed his account had been hacked. A similar defence was mounted by the law student who targeted football commentator Stan Collymore with racist tweets. Joshua Cryer was sentenced to two years of community service and ordered to pay legal costs.

In the US, Arizona reached the headlines last week for a new law which criminalises “offensive” online communication.

But what about a country like South Africa where there are no clear guidelines for behaviour on Twitter? Users can block somebody or report spam, and presumably if there’s a clear-cut case of hate speech, you could take it before the Human Rights Commission (an independent body tasked with redressing human rights violations).

The rules of Twitter engagement were brought into sharp relief by rather odd exchange on Friday last week, involving hot cross buns, Islam and an escaped python.

It started when a number of users raised objections to tweets by a man called Richard Catto.

Catto is not the most likeable character you’re ever likely to encounter online. When Twitter went into uproar about a national retailer sticking Halaal labels on its hot cross buns, Catto appeared to take full advantage, updating his Facebook status and tweeting about how putting a Halaal mark on hot cross buns was tantamount to crucifying Christ all over again — “pure hyperbole” he says.

Sadly I didn’t have the presence of mind to screen grab them, as he subsequently deleted them, but this tweet gives a flavour of the earlier ones:

At the same time as the hot cross debate was getting heated, two escaped pythons in Johannesburg started tweeting as @SandtonPython. After Dolce was found, Gabbana continued tweeting. In the wake of requests from the public to take care of a variety of political figures, he offered his services to those who had objected to the Islam tweets:

The snake later tweeted @TheJoLurie:

Catto spotted these tweets and responded:

To which Joanne Lurie responded:

Catto then laid into her, she gave as good as she got — she called him a “cocktard” — and things just went downhill from there. There are far too many tweets to show here, but this was one that shocked a lot of people:

”You gonna get raped” is an old internet meme. “Rape is a topic which hits most women right between the eyes, which is why that meme tends to shock most women into silence when they get hit with it, especially if they haven’t seen it before,” Catto later explained to me.

Several others who had noticed the exchange also got involved. The tweet below gives an idea of the quality of debate:

At one point, Catto’s address and phone number were tweeted with the suggestion that somebody pay him a visit.

Catto later adopted a more conciliatory tone, offering to call Lurie to discuss the issue and posting this tweet:

He also deleted the tweets that others had objected to.

I later asked Catto what on earth he was up to. He explained that his hot cross bun tweets were trolling, but were not directed at anybody. To find them, people would have had to search for them. As for the other exchanges, he says he didn’t start them: “I don’t pick fights with random people by insulting them. I first engage them on a topic and I refrain from personal insults until they do, then they’re fair game.” (Go back and look at the tweets that started all the trouble and make up your own mind.)

When I asked Catto why he deleted his tweets he said: “I tried to inject some humour into the exchanges, but no-one was biting. During a lull, I just cleared it all out.”

Catto is adamant that he was in the right. “Trolling people is not an invitation to random strangers to insult me,” he says. “Trolling is a means to getting people excited about a topic, rather than excited about throwing insults about me about… It’s an old apartheid idea and attitude. Censor all that does not fit into your tight mould.”

Author | Sarah Britten

Sarah Britten
Sarah Britten is the strategic planning director at Labstore South Africa. Her relationship status is hidden. More
  • There are certainly limits on free expression in the Bill of Rights. Hate speech and incitements to violence are not protected, for example. On the other hand, the right to freedom of expression means that people can behave badly online (and elsewhere) provided they don’t cross the line. 

    The right to freedom of expression means that people can express their opinions about a brand, write about poor service, protest unjust action and so on. As important as the right is to protect interests we generally agree are worth protecting (consider the Secrecy Bill debate), the right only has value if it protects other forms of expression we may not agree with. This includes tweets like Mr Catto’s which many people find offensive. It includes views that are not always popular or even desirable but as long as a person doesn’t express themselves in a manner that is not protected by the right, they should be able to do it and we should be able to block them or ignore them.

  • Great article, as always Sarah. We all want free speech but certain online behaviour shouldn’t be tolerated. I certainly wouldn’t want any of my online rants (of which there are none) to be associated with a service that I am earning income from. 

  • Anonymous

    Apart from rights – to free speech, dignity, etc, etc, there is also a construct called good manners, often referred to as netiquette when online.

    I have forgotten the exact quote, but it goes something like this:
    There are only two things that are infinite – the size of the universe and human stupidity.  And I am not so sure about the size of the universe.  – Einsteing

  • Never say anything on the internet that you wouldn’t want to see next to a photo of yourself on the front page of a newspaper…or on Memeburn.

  • That’s certainly advisable but you should be free to tweet a rant if you choose to. Whether you do says more about your regard for your reputation or choices about what your reputation should be.

  • Anon

    dude…. you’re way too old to be a troll. get off the internet.
    horrible mean little man. gets all defensive when the same medicine is thrown back at him. 
    and he really puts his business name to that drivel?? 

  • ani

    what’s the definition of hate speech then? and who gets to raise a case? 

  • There are a couple forms of expression not covered. The hate speech form is described as “advocacy of hatred that is based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion, and that constitutes incitement to cause harm”. If someone’s hate speech infringes your rights you can take action.

  • Momo

    Commentary on this article re hate speech on Twitter in South Africa – http://bit.ly/HL3R7A

  • DickyGato

    I wonder if this isn’t more attention than a sad attention-seeking little man with just 184 Twitter followers really deserves. He certainly makes a lot of noise, but there isn’t much significance to it.

  • JohnS

    As flamewars go, this one was quite disappointing. These exchanges happen everyday somewhere on the internet. This one was truly unremarkable. Not sure how this is newsworthy.

    What interests me, is can a person posting as a python make death threats and get away with it?

  • Sarah Britten

    Thanks for your comments Paul – there’s a lot of uncertainty about the legality of online expression and when it’s possible to institute legal proceedings (and when not). I know that Facebook status updates have been used in CCMA cases (in the one I cited in a piece for City Press last year, the dismissed employees lost). 

  • Anonymous

    “If you wanna though a punch, don’t be surprised when you get smacked in return.”

  • This isn’t the first time he’s caused drama. There were some very sexually aggressive tweets aimed at women not so long ago and others have made noise about this too. His attempt at the humour card is pathetic. Total disregard of respect.

  • I agree with David. Great Article. I’m still shocked at what I read! I am clearly not going to associate myself with such fowl behavior on twitter, ever. They is always a line!! They clearly overstepped it. 

  • Dick Catto has the right to be a jerk

    I have the right to call him out on being a jerk.

    Supporting freedom of speech and expression is not on condition that you agree with what is being expressed.

  • SR

    http://richardcattowatch.blogspot.com/ << not the first time he's caused a stir online.  Good points on how to deal with him

  • Martin

    What did Catto do to you, “blind cripple”? Steal your crutches and gouge your eyes out? I’ve never seen him attack women in the way you describe. I guess this is just more propaganda from the offended faction?

  • Hey Sarah, the employees in that case left their updates publicly accessible and while I think the commissioner missed the better legal points due to a poor understanding of how Facebook works, if the updates are publicly accessible, the employees didn’t have an expectation of privacy and could only blame themselves if their comments attracted attention.

    Feel free to get in touch if you want to discuss these sorts of issues further?

  • Pingback: Hate Speech on Twitter in South Africa | Mo_Ya'eesh()

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