Murder of Sir David Amess

Updated: Feb 28

By Alexander Lee


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Sir David Amess, Tory MP for Southend, was murdered while holding a constituency surgery on 15th Oct 2021. The tragedy sent shockwaves throughout the UK’s political sphere, with a 2-hour long parliamentary session being held in its observance. The resulting legal fallout meant that public outrage from supporters of Amess was translated into calls for Boris Johnson to ‘toughen up’ legal reforms of the Online Safety Bill. [1]


This stems from a recent worry of Amess and fellow MP Mark Francois about the increasing online abuse towards MPs, and the suspicion that there might be a connection between his death and such abuse. As of now, the police have arrested a single young male present at the crime on the suspicion of having connections with Islam extremism.


The OSB draft places an emphasis on protecting both minors and legal adults from web-related risks, imposing a negative obligation on US social media and technology companies to take responsibility for abusive content, failing which fines will be imposed. However, the backlash from Amess’ murder has beckoned a further step down this road with the introduction of ‘David’s Law’, intended to ban anonymous online accounts. [2]


This is concerning for free speech advocates. While the UK does not have the same obligations towards protecting free speech as the United States’ Constitutional First Amendment rights, it is concerning that the country is choosing to take the path of censorship when less drastic measures could be used instead, such as dramatically raising the punishment for incitement to crime via online social media posts to perform a deterrence function. Furthermore, there are some practical difficulties in removing online anonymity. For all the negative consequences that have been mentioned, this could also dissuade whistle-blowers or abuse victims from speaking out for fear of discovery.


In regards to fear of exposure for these so-called online trolls, a study done via Twitter has actually suggested that they would not be deterred from continuing such abuse even at risk of identity verification—as evidenced by the responses of those who hurled verbal attacks at the English Football Team after the 2020 Euros.


In this regard, it is important to consider striking the right balance between free speech and physical safety.





References:

[1] Lucy Reynolds, ‘MPs in trouble: PM urged to enact “David’s Law” over Sir David Amess’ murder’ (Littlelaw, 4 Nov 2021), https://www.littlelaw.co.uk/2021/11/04/mps-in-trouble-pm-urged-to-enact-davids-law-over-sir-david-amess-murder/ (accessed 20 Dec 2021)

[2] ‘The Guardian view on Sir David Amess: a shocking political death’ (The Guardian, 15 Oct 2021), https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/commentisfree/2021/oct/15/the-guardian-view-on-sir-david-amess-a-shocking-political-death (accessed 20 Dec 2021)