UK Student Charged For 'Grossly Offensive' Facebook Post

from the fighting-for-the-right-to-not-be-offended? dept

Just in case anyone needed another reminder that Britain's “Free Speech” laws are more about what's not included than what is, a UK citizen has just been found guilty of “sending a grossly offensive communication,” a crime under the Malicious Communications Act of 1988.

Azher Ahmed posted a message on his Facebook page in response to the news that six British soldiers had died in an Afghanistan IED attack. His message was as follows:

People gassin about the deaths of Soldiers! What about the innocent familys who have been brutally killed. The women who have been raped. The children who have been sliced up! Your enemy's were the Taliban not innocent harmful familys.

All soldiers should DIE & go to HELL! THE LOWLIFE F****N SCUM! Gotta problem. Go cry at your soldiers grave and wish him hell because that's where he is going.

Recognizing the fact that the UK does not have the same sort of free speech protection that the US does, it's still somewhat troubling that a Facebook post of this nature is considered a criminal act. The message is ugly and completely devoid of sensitivity (or logic), but is it so offensive as to be a criminal offense? The district court certainly believes it is.

A lot of terminology was used by both parties in an attempt to draw the line between what's acceptable and what's arrestable. Ahmed felt the message was “distressing” but not “offensive.” The judge said his remark was “derogatory, disrespectful and inflammatory.”

The comment could certainly be considered all of the above, but pursuing cases like this in an effort to keep the public from being distressed or offended is an exercise in futility. There's no shortage of statements people find offensive, but the defining line is subjective. There's no true baseline for “offensive,” and yet the judicial system somehow believes “offensiveness” can be objectively determined and enforced.

This puts the judicial system in the position of forming opinions on behalf of its citizens. Ahmed himself met with plenty of opposing opinion soon after posting his message. As his account of the event shows, the “court of public opinion” had already rendered a verdict.

Ahmed told the court he immediately started to receive critical comments on his page and realised the second half of his post was “unacceptable”.

Ahmed told the court he was only trying to make the point that many other deaths in Afghanistan were being ignored. He said he had no idea it would cause so much upset and as soon as he realised what reaction it was having he deleted it.

When someone deletes a post because of negative comments, the system has already worked. This doesn't excuse the person writing the post, but in Ahmed's case, he'd already received plenty of feedback on the “wrongness” of his opinion, and acted on the feedback.

Ahmed said: “I didn't intend to insult them at the time.

“When I read back on it, that's when I realised I had actually insulted and upset a lot of people.”

He said he replied with apologies to many people who commented on his page and when some told him they had lost relatives in Afghanistan he realised how serious it was.

“That's when I realised it was unacceptable for them to see something so upsetting and distressing, to write something like that,” he added.

Including the demonstrations at his court appearances, derogatory Facebook pages and threats being made against his employer as well as against an unrelated “Azhar,” it seems almost redundant for a court to step in a render a verdict. The severe limits imposed on speech in an effort to protect people from “offensive messages” has had enough of a chilling effect that most UK-hosted articles dealing with this court case have their comments shut off. (Comments are available on this editorial at The Guardian, but the thread appears to be heavily moderated.)

Enforcing a national “niceness” is an impossibility, but its unintended consequences include criminalizing the most basic human trait of all: stupidity. The general population already has very effective ways of dealing with those who are “stupid in public,” especially those who are “stupid on the internet.” Despite the fact that the law was conceived to deal with a digital age, at no point does it seem to have been crafted to deal with nuances like opinion, emotion or venue. It only encourages citizens to engage the legal system every time they've been offended.

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Comments on “UK Student Charged For 'Grossly Offensive' Facebook Post”

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The eejit (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

OH, sure, he just said that all the soldiers in Afghanistan were rotting in hell…to families of soldiers.

Now that the sarcasm’s out fo the way, I actually agree with you: however, Crony Bliar instituted this as part of his “anti-hate speech” concept. And as usual, it did little to actually stop what it was targetted against and lots against foreigners saying stupid shit.

Milton Freewater says:

Re: The old saying

“Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never harm me – We really need to stop teaching children this saying. It doesn’t hold true in the 21st century.”

I disagree. It’s just as true today. Truth doesn’t have a date stamp.

“Stay off the social networks people. It’s a trap.”

Here you may be right. As long as superstitious, ignorant people believe that digital activity requires an entirely new set of morals and legal codes, we’ll never be sure how to act online, and given that the whole world’s watching, we’re all at the mercy of the most superstitious of the lot.

Fifty years from now, anti-digital hysteria will be studied in schools. Now we just have to live through it.

Ninja (profile) says:

I do hope they have shitloads of vacant space on their jails. They are gonna need it. Everybody has their moment of saying, writing something that makes them look like complete arseholes. I have these moments, Mike has these moments, bob has these moments (although they are much more frequent). The fact is we are human, we commit mistakes and often can’t grasp that something said can be “derogatory, disrespectful and inflammatory.”

We are, however, capable of apologizing or explaining what was our intention when saying something that had such not intended effect (well, maybe in exception of bob). So he deleted his post and apologized to many people and still got jailed and got his life destroyed. Tell me how does this help to diminish the hatred? Answer: it doesn’t. It seems but some sort of modern linguistics inquisition we are living in. When have we started devolving like this?

Andrew (profile) says:

I find this extremely worrying. Quite apart from the right not to be offended enshrined in the Act (and also in the Communications Act 2003 127 (1)), which is very concerning, these laws don’t seem to distinguish between communications directed at a particular individual and those put out into the public sphere.

Posting a message saying “I’m going to kill you” on a blog, or even something hateful like “kill all [insert your favourite minority here]”, is clearly going to be perceived as less of a threat than if the message were sent directly to members of that community. The law should reflect that, but, as with the Chambers Twitter joke trial, it doesn’t appear to make that distinction. There seems to be a real danger that provocative and controversial reporting could fall foul of this Act – was yesterday’s #muslimrage Newsweek article “grossly offensive”, for example?

I’m also a little concerned that someone may find my defence of distasteful speech, as in this case, grossly offensive and file suit against me. That is not a good place for a legal system to be.

nospacesorspecialcharacters (profile) says:

Waving my naughty bits at your aunties!

My fear is that we are stumbling into a world where we treat troops like a protected minority…

Surely if the speech were that dangerous all insurgents and opposing forces everywhere would need to do is deploy English speaking denizens with megaphones to say awful things like “I fart in your general direction!”

Still, its nice to know that British authorities aren’t so overwhelmed with dealing with the serious crime of piracy, that they can occasionally attend to the other most important crime of the 21st century – saying unpleasant things on the internet.

The eejit (profile) says:

Re: Waving my naughty bits at your aunties!

The simple fact is that the armiesw are simply doing their job. Even if we disagree that there is a job to do. There’s a corollary to the Hillsbrough incident and the actions of the higher-up polkice there were absolutely reprehensible. But if I called for them to be shot for betraying the uniform, then it could reasonably be argued that I was threatening them. And that, sadly, is a criminal offense over here.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Waving my naughty bits at your aunties!

Apparently it does now. I have a friend who was in the Air Force, I was visiting her awhile back and noticed she had a giant stuffed teddy bear. So I asked about it, she then told me the name of the bear. I forget what it was, but it was the name of one U.S. soldier who had ordered soldiers in his command to essentially ambush and fire on Iraqi police forces as retribution for something or other. Or was it women and children? I forget.

She said that all the soldiers used the “I was only following orders” defense and were summarily pardoned for their actions. But the Captain or Sergeant (forget his rank) who ordered the soldiers to do that didn’t get away scott free.

At which point I couldn’t help but start laughing uncontrollably and she didn’t get why, so she inquired about my laughter. I told her it was hilariously hypocritical for U.S. soldiers to shoot upon Iraqi people as retribution and then use the “I was only following orders” defense, which was summarily dismissed as “unacceptable” about sixty years ago when the Nazis used it. Which she still didn’t get. I then had to explain it to her. Basically, it’s not okay to use that excuse when you’re anyone but the U.S., which she found offensive and quickly changed the conversation. (Some people don’t like the hypocrisy of the U.S. to be pointed out. I also went off pointing out how the majority of dictators and whatnot that we’ve had problems with were all originally put in power by the U.S. to replace others who wouldn’t kowtow to what we wanted them to do/say.)

The eejit (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Waving my naughty bits at your aunties!

No. I can respect the job they have to do whilst reviling their actions in the negative.

See also: Abu Ghraib as an example of actions that should be reviled. I have a number of current-and-ex military friends who went and served in Afghanistan who also do not agree that they should not be out there right now. It is one of those things for which I have no easy answer.

Anonymous Coward says:

There are others of us who believe that the terms “offensive, “derogatory, disrespectful and inflammatory” do not adequately express proper contempt for the action of a group of nut cases organized in to a band of roaming kill crazies whose hole life is devoted to the occupation of beat the hell out of, kill and mangle, other lands and people just for the fun and hell of it.

Wait, can not say that because it is a proper description of what the west is doing in Afghanistan.

This rulings like this from piss ant despots shows why the US Constitution has a First Amendment. At one time we had a know it all group of idiots trash despots here too. Ups, they still exist here but are now restrained some what by the First Amendment.

Duke (profile) says:

Re: "The trial continues.."

BBC is reporting that he was convicted on the 14th. He doesn’t seem to have been sentenced yet.

There’s still the chance of him appealing, though; as with the Paul Chambers case (eventually acquitted) sometimes crazy things can happen in the lower courts of the UK criminal justice system. But don’t worry, the government is fixing this by drastically reducing the legal/financial support provided to defendants.


Rob (profile) says:

devoid of logic?

The message is ugly and completely devoid of sensitivity (or logic)

Yes, it is ugly and insensitive, his second paragraph was completely unnecessary and over the line, but what do you mean by devoid of logic? The low estimates are over 100,000 civilian deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2003, that’s the “safe guess” number, many sources report over half a million. These are civilians, the same as the 3,000 civilians who died on 9/11. Not to desparage the lives of the victims of 911, but the tragedy of this war is so much deeper, and while we arrogantly have our 911 memorial vigils every year and mindlessly buy bumper stickers and coffee mugs that say “Never Forget” and “Freedom!”, the hundreds of thousands of brown people we have snuffed out don’t get a second thought, hell they don’t even get a first thought because the average American has ZERO CLUE how many innocent people we’ve slaughtered to avenge the deaths of those 3,000.

btr1701 (profile) says:


> Enforcing a national “niceness” is an
> impossibility, but its unintended consequences
> include criminalizing the most basic human
> trait of all: stupidity.

And even if such a niceness policy could be implemented and enforced, it would still be pointless as it could only be enforced within the borders of the UK. Someone else on Facebook from another country could easily write the same thing, and offend the same people, with impunity.

Anonymous Coward says:

I am dumb.

Whatis the difference? Yes, one isin Arabic and one is in English but really what is the difference?

Egypt court sentences Copt for insulting Islam, leader

Published September 18, 2012

Associated Press

CAIRO ? A court in southern Egypt has sentenced a Coptic Christian teacher to six years in prison for posting on his Facebook page drawings that it ruled insulted Islam’s Prophet Muhammad and comments deemed an affront to the country’s president.

The state news agency said the court ……………..

Read more:

Austin (profile) says:


Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think this asshat deserves jail either, but none of you see the issue here?

Let me give you a hint. You see that part AFTER his line break? Yeah, that second half? That’s pretty god damn offensive. I mean, I’m not in the military, I have no family in the military, and I’m not even British (I’m from Alabama, heh) but even I find that second half offensive.

Now that isn’t to say I think this dipshit should go to jail for it. On the contrary, they should conscript his ass into the SAS and drop him in the middle of Kabul with nothing but a sidearm with 2 bullets and a helmet camera and tell him “You have 1 hour to make it to the airport or we leave your ass here. Good luck.” That way the punishment fits the crime AND we get some good TV out of it. Win-win.

But in any case, while I agree that this isn’t jail-worthy, let’s all have some context here. We can all agree that killing innocent civilians is as much, and maybe even more, of a tragedy than the death of soldiers. However, when you make it this personal, like he did in the second half of his post, you go from something that makes good sense to insensitive prick pretty quickly. This is almost as offensive as a facebook post can possibly be, folks.

Andre (profile) says:

“Malicious Communications Act 1988” – An Act to make provision for the punishment of persons who send or deliver letters or other articles for the purpose of causing distress or anxiety.

Guess the average Briton would sulk in fear upon hearing American Rap Music. According to what I take from the “Malicious Communications Act,” this was seemingly enacted to protect individual citizens from unsolicited harassment, which makes sense.

Similar to today’s Kate Middleton injunction, the British and their European buddies apparently spin laws so as to protect politicians, royalty and the military. How is this effectively different than Saudi Arabian and laws?

History shows that all nations, no matter their political pursusions, are likely at some point to come under tyrannical and brutish rule. That’s a hard fact. How does the British propose citizens rally support for an insurrection, if one is warranted, against tyrannical governments if comments such as this are banned? Like the article states, if everyone else think such a comment is asinine, then it ends there. If Libyans didn’t discuss how they felt about Gaddafi and his regime, there couldn’t have been an uprising. British high society would likly suggest a respectfull letter written to the tyrannical regime stating concerns. And if they ignore, disincline, or worse?

Well, at least no one beats the British in histrionics when evidence of genocides are uncovered. Got to give them that!

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