Should public figures who made offensive remarks when they were young be punished later?

Eir NolsoeData Journalist
January 14, 2022, 2:18 PM UTC

Britons tend to believe famous people should be held accountable for offensive remarks if they were 20 or older when they made them

The ghost of social media past has landed many public figures in hot water, with cricketer Ollie Robinson the most recent example. The 27-year-old sportsman was suspended from international cricket pending an investigation into tweets he wrote in 2012-13 – when he was 18-19 years old – which include racist, sexist and ableist comments.

But does being young excuse making offensive remarks, like culture secretary Oliver Dowden insisted in Robinson’s case? Up until a point, the public believe.

Some 70-77% of Britons believe it would be unfair to punish a public figure for racist or sexist comments the person made a decade ago if they were aged 17 or younger at the time.

More people also believe it would unfair (48%) than fair (37%) to hold someone accountable if they were 18 or 19 years old when making the remarks.

The tipping point appears to be at age 20 to 21, when half of Britons (50%) say punishment would be just, while a third (36%) say it would not. The proportion of people saying it would be fair rises to 57% in a scenario where the person was aged 22-24 when making the remarks and 62% if they were 25 or older.

But even if a public figure was 25 or older at the point of making an offensive comment a decade prior, one in four Britons (24%) still say they should not be punished.

In every instance, younger people are more likely than those who are older to say the person should be held accountable. Britons aged 18 to 24 tend to believe it would be fair to punish a celebrity for problematic opinions they expressed as an 18 or 19 year old, even if a decade has passed, by 45% to 40%. In contrast, the split among those aged 65+ is 31% vs 58%.

Those identifying as LGBT are more likely than the general public to say a celebrity should be punished for offensive comments made a decade ago. However, the tipping point is the same at 20-21 years old, where 58% say it would be fair to hold someone accountable for remarks they made at that age and 29% who say it would be unfair.

Britons from ethnic minority backgrounds are more likely still to support holding a public figure accountable for past offensive remarks, with more than a quarter (28%) saying that a public figure should be held accountable if they were 15 years old or younger when making the remarks. The tipping point for ethnic minority Britons is also younger than for LGBT adults at 18-19 years old. Some 57% believe that it is fair to punish someone for offensive remarks made at this age, with 30% saying it would be unfair.

See the full results here, here and here