Facebook Page Caught Between Government Censorship and Public Morality

A new Facebook group was created – and subsequently deleted – that is creating some tension between the UK government and lawmakers, and Facebook itself. The group is a memorial page for Raoul Moat, a man who attempted to kill his ex girlfriend, killed her new lover, and wounded a police officer before shooting himself while cornered by police. Attracting more than 38,000 fans before its creator took it offline, the group “R.I.P. Raoul Moat You Legend” is still stirring up controversy over the question of governments and lawmakers versus public morality: Should governments have a right to step in when there is an issue of public morality at hand? And does the fact that this is occurring on a social network have anything to do with it?

David Cameron has been very vocal about his disapproval of the Facebook sympathy toward Moat: “I cannot understand any wave, however small, of public sympathy for this man. It is absolutely clear that Raoul Moat was a callous murderer – full stop, end of story.” His government was supportive of a UK lawmaker’s bid to get Facebook to pull the page as it incited hatred against police, women and public figures.

Facebook released the following statement earlier today in response to the lawmaker’s request that the group be removed:

“Facebook is a place where people can express their views and discuss things in an open way as they can and do in many other places, and as such we sometimes find people discussing topics others may find distasteful. However that is not a reason in itself to stop a debate from happening.”

As the debate over whether the government and lawmakers have a right to put and end to a public memorial – even if it is a memorial for a killer – was raging, the creator of the memorial group suddenly removed it without much fanfare. Earlier this morning, the group’s creator Siobhan O’Dowd deleted the group according to the Daily Mail. When asked why, she responded:

“I don’t know really. A few of us came to a decision but it’s going to be up again running. We don’t condone what he did, as what he did was wrong. I feel sorry for the families but he was still a human being at the end of the day. He had problems and needed help and he didn’t get any help.”

As we noted on AllFacebook, the contention over the page comes at the heels of a Skype chat between Mark Zuckerberg and David Cameron.

Although the page is down for now, the creator has said she will likely put it back up in the future. This means that the debate is not over, and the UK government may reach out to Facebook directly to ask them to take it down for good. This has serious implications for freedom of speech online. If Facebook enacts the government’s request and forces the owner of the page to shut it down, advocacy groups and individuals will no doubt cry “censorship”.

On the other hand, those in favor of removing the page had said that it is more akin to hate speech than a memorial. There were many comments that were violent or hateful in nature on the page, including the following:

“He’s a ******* LEGEND for attempting to kill the police – should have taken a lot more down with him! R.I.P Big Man.”

“If my Mrs ever does to me what she did to Raoul I hope I’m brave enough to do a Moaty.”

Hate speech is usually an exception to freedom of speech, and has often been censored by governments with little public outcry. However, this memorial page could be considered a public forum for sharing grief rather than hate speech, depending on how the comments on the page are interpreted. And the fact that it is on Facebook could mean re-interpreting what is public and private, what is government domain and what is netizen territory.

Screenshot courtesy of TNTmagazine.com.