Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Sick jokes are a crime in the UK

Today, the Home Secretary, Theresa May, spoke at the Conservative Party conference and said:

Do we want to see the internet become an unpoliced space? No. Do we want to see terrorists, criminals and paedophiles get away scot-free? No. We are the Conservative Party, not the Libertarian Party. As Conservatives, we believe the first duty of government is to protect the public. That is why the Conservative Party will always be the party of law and order.

She's right of course.  Law and order is about protecting people's freedoms, but she mentioned the word "freedom" once by saying We need to give the police the freedom to use their judgement.

Yes, well if you want the difference between conservatives and libertarians then this case is one of them.

Matthew Woods is a rather vile young man.  He posted a joke that the Police deemed to be grossly offensive, on the website Sickipedia.  The joke was about April Jones, the 5 year old girl who went missing 11 days, and now presumed murdered.  I don't care what the joke was, because it is likely to be grossly offensive to me.  However, that's not the point.

The Guardian reported:

He pleaded guilty at Chorley magistrates court to sending by means of a public electronic communications network a message or other matter that is grossly offensive. The chairman of the bench, Bill Hudson, said Woods's comments were so "abhorrent" he deserved the longest sentence the court could hand down.

He is getting 12 weeks in prison.  

Is this really a matter for the criminal law?  Would he have faced a conviction if he had simply said it to another person?  How about if he wrote it on a piece of paper?  If not, why is an electronic communication so bad that it is time to be precious about vile jokes?

The Guardian also notes there is a long list of similar cases:
- A 56 day sentence for a racist comment about a footballer who collapsed;
- A teenager visited by the Police for being disgustingly rude to Olympic diver Tom Daley on Twitter;

Now the last case probably justified a query, given fear of terrorism, but the rest?  Has British society become so precious that people who offend others deserve a criminal record?  Or is there genuine fear that if there isn't a criminal law against it, that people will throw ever more disgusting insults around in a snowball of nihilism and vileness?  If so, is the right response to offensive speech not simply to insult the person saying it, or to ignore it?

Direct incitement to violence is one thing. But we cannot and should not sentence people for bad jokes, poor taste and terrible manners. That is an issue for parents, teachers and, most importantly, peer groups.


Most people in their lives will encounter bores, bullies and a range of rude pricks who will call you names, who will be offensive to you and seek to upset you.  It isn't a crime to insult someone, except it is, now.

I don't blame the Conservatives any more than the other parties.  Labour introduced this law, and both the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives have happily let it be.  However it is wrong.

Free speech is for those who offend as well as those who inspire.  The state should not be policing what offends people, for when will it stop?  Will you be able to call the Police if someone calls you a name?  Will books and songs be banned for offending Christians or Muslims?  Will politicians get people arrested for calling them lying corrupt pricks?

I don't doubt that the latest example of using this law is about someone who has been vile, but then comedian Frankie Boyle is vile, the lowlifes who sell t-shirts to celebrate dancing on Margaret Thatcher's grave are vile, but I don't want the state arresting them.  I don't want the state arresting me because I blaspheme against Islam, or call Russel Norman a prick, or call Sue Kedgley a hysterical control freak, etc etc.

It is time to speak up for free speech, including the free speech of that which offends, for no one should have a conviction because they said or wrote something that upset someone else.

UPDATE:  Peter Cresswell has written about people getting offended by what some politicians say.  He uses a quote I nearly used, which is Stephen Fry's about people thinking that when they are offended, they gain some sort of new right to "something".  No you don't.

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