UK Continues To Criminalize Bad Taste And Stupidity In Online Postings

from the can't-we-just-be-grown-up-about-this? dept

In the wake of the Twitter joke trial fiasco, which saw Paul Chambers dragged through the courts for two years before being acquitted, the UK’s Director of Public Prosecutions announced that there should be an “informed debate” about the boundaries of free speech for social media. That really can’t happen soon enough, as the UK continues to arrest and punish people for the crime of posting stupid and tasteless messages online. Here are some of the latest developments.

A man was arrested after creating a page on Facebook that appeared to praise the alleged murderer of two British policewomen. The UK student charged with writing a “grossly offensive” Facebook post about British soldiers killed in Afghanistan, has now been sentenced to 240 hours of community service, and to pay £300 (about $500) costs. He got off quite lightly compared to 19-year-old Matthew Woods, who has just been sent to prison for three months for making jokes about two young girls who are missing:

A teenager who posted explicit comments and jokes about April Jones on his Facebook page has been jailed for 12 weeks.

Matthew Woods, 19, from Chorley, Lancashire, made comments about April and Madeleine McCann, the three-year-old who went missing during a family holiday in Portugal in 2007.

The Guardian article, quoted above, goes on to reproduce some of Woods’ comments, which are exceptionally insensitive given the fact that the fate of both the young girls in question is still unknown — an appalling situation for their respective parents. But it’s hard not to get the feeling that the harsh punishment was imposed in part to assuage public anger:

“The reason for the sentence is the seriousness of the offense, the public outrage that has been caused and we felt there was no other sentence this court could have passed which conveys to you the abhorrence that many in society feel this crime should receive.”

Indeed, the Guardian article includes the following disturbing fact:

Woods was arrested for his own safety after about 50 people descended on his home.

This is getting dangerously close to mob justice, with the courts responding to public outrage by imposing disproportionately severe punishments. What’s particularly worrying is that such sentences are likely to feed public anger in future cases, rather than quell it: people will have a benchmark for how grossly offensive comments should be punished, and the courts may well feel obliged to bow to that implicit pressure.

That makes the Director of Public Prosecution’s review of this whole area crucially important. Sadly, another feature in the Guardian suggests that the preferred solution of the UK government is self-censorship by social networks:

The director of public prosecutions is exploring whether Facebook and Twitter should take more responsibility for policing their networks for abuse and harassment in an attempt to reduce the number of cases coming to court.

As that makes clear, this is not really solving the problem by coming up with a sensible legal framework, merely sweeping it under the carpet so that fewer cases come to court. A better long-term solution would to accept that stupid people will always say offensive things, and that the best policy and punishment is to treat them with the contempt they deserve unless they clearly break laws other than those of good taste.

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Comments on “UK Continues To Criminalize Bad Taste And Stupidity In Online Postings”

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Robert says:

Re: Re: April fools

It is hardly impolite to write “All soldiers should die and go to hell” that is an apolitical comment upon the sub-culture of the military upon a global basis, as no specific nationality was mentioned.
In that specific case the judge was clearly corrupt in judgement and allowed prejudice to pervert justice.
That comment “All soldiers should die and go to hell” reflects a opinion upon those who choose murder as their profession, there are always two sides two wars but soldiers always do the killing.

Zakida Paul says:

At least there is to be a review of social media laws although I would not be confident that common sense will prevail, especially when in the same article they are talking about policing comments. If speech is policed, it is not free and there should never be ‘remedies’ (as they put it) for offensive speech.

Freedom of speech laws are there to protect unpopular or offensive speech. If everyone was inoffensive and avoided saying anything unpopular there would be no need for free speech.

Duke (profile) says:

Another case today

There’s a similar case being reported today of a man locked up for 4 months (plus 4 months for a previous thing) for wearing an offensive T-shirt. Apparently the guy was wearing a T-shirt promoting the death of police officers a couple of weeks ago when two nearby policewomen were killed on duty. People saw him, complained, and he has now been convicted and jailed. The backstory seems to be that his son died in police custody a few years ago, and he has had a rather tense relationship with them since.

This one is particularly interesting because it seems he was only arrested/prosecuted for wearing the shirt *after* the shootings, which seems rather unsatisfactory from a legal point of view. Of course it doesn’t matter as he pleaded guilty, so there was no trial.

As for the social media stuff, yes the DPP has been meeting with lawyers (including some pretty awesome ones) and social media executives this week to “discuss” the issue (not that he can do much as he has no law-making powers), however note the lack of anyone actually from the Internet (or society in general) in that group… once again the ordinary person gets left out.

Duke (profile) says:

Re: Re: Another case today

Actually, he was charged under s4A Public Order Act 1986, which is a summary offence, so even if he’d pleaded not guilty he couldn’t have got a jury trial. You have to be charged with a serious law, and plead not guilty, to ever get to a criminal jury in England.

And yes, freedom of expression in the UK is definitely qualified by not being able to significantly annoy the police, the mainstream media, and certain conservative types…

Vidiot (profile) says:

Vice versa?

Hmmm… in the UK, popular outrage nets a stiffer sentence. So when popular opinion indicates that charges are trumped-up, or that the law itself is unjust, vague or too severe, does the UK judiciary respond by downgrading the punishment? Twelve lashes with a soggy biscuit? If the mob causes judges to modify sentencing, hope that swings both ways…

anon says:

Re: Vice versa?

There are bad points to the law and how it works but in most cases it works. A t-shirt calling for the murder of police and worn in an area where 2 policemen were just shot to death is not a good idea. I feel for the guy who got sentenced but there are better ways to protest.

As in America England gets it wrong a lot of the time but it also gets it right a lot of the time and if it takes a protest by citizens for a judge to have another look at a sentence he has given or whether to take a case can only be good.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Vice versa?

Since when does “better ways to protest” or “not a good idea” equate to jail time?

It’s a pretty soft argument for applying physical coercion — which is what arrest and imprisonment really are.

By using understatement, you have avoided getting into contact with the unpleasant realities underlying these cases — on either side.

The human race divides politically into those who want people to be controlled and those who have no such desire. The former are idealists acting from highest motives for the greatest good of the greatest number. The latter are surly curmudgeons, suspicious and lacking in altruism. But they are more comfortable neighbors than the other sort.

art guerrilla (profile) says:

Re: Re: Vice versa?

so-o-o-o, either you don’t know what ‘free speech’ constitutes, or you don’t fucking care, which is it ? ? ?

‘free speech’ does NOT mean a person is only allowed to say what you -or the state- approves of…

to paraphrase chomsky: if you do not defend the right of your worst enemy to say the vilest things, then you are not for ‘free speech’…

sorry, that is simply true; trying to wormtongue out of that is telling…

art guerrilla
aka ann archy

Barney says:


you realize a serf was a free person whom worked for a land owner and was free to leave anytime only the pay kept them indentured…IF buy chance wealth came and /or they got a weapon, they were completely allowed to keep it in most cases.

Jumping up and down with it and yelling obsenities would prolly not lead to prison but a few quick arrows to your head

aint it great how far we come and how civilized we really are now….lol

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: @13

You are mistaken. Serfs in medieval Europe and in Russia were often “bound to the land”, meaning they were not allowed to leave. In this respect, they were not like sharecroppers, where your description of economic force is accurate. They were like slaves, because they could be legally prevented from leaving. The prohibitions were sometimes porous and their legal status changed in different countries at different rates.

Anonymous Coward says:

Here’s a solution:
Stop posting stupid and tasteless messages online.

“Oh noes, freedom of speech” I hear you say? Your freedom is not limitless and stops when you’re being retarded towards others, even if it was just a joke that showed how epicly stupid you are and totally deserved everything you got.

Don’t talk the talk if you can’t walk the walk, end of story.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Your freedom is not limitless and stops when you’re being retarded towards others

Maybe in the UK, but I’d argue that’s wrong. Your freedom should only be restricted when you are harming or endangering the person or property of a nonconsenting other.

Hurt feelings don’t count as “harm”.

If you aren’t free to be a total asshole, you aren’t free. Likewise if you aren’t free to call someone out on being a total asshole, you also aren’t free.

Duke (profile) says:

... and another case

And now news is spreading of another group of people charged for making comments on Twitter and Facebook, but here in a slightly less anti-free-speech way, perhaps. Five people have been charged for publishing the name/identity of a rape victim on the various websites (4 people have already been charged).

Obviously this is a completely different situation, and set of principles, but still involves criminalising online speech.

Anonymous Coward says:

The continent is famous for culturally-based prohibitions of speech, but I think the rule of law is stronger there in these matters. These days, Britain actually looks worse to me than France, Germany and Italy for free speech.

She should have a constitution, but doesn’t. Europe and America are decently clothed underneath, Britain, not.

Don’t try to make one right now, though. In the current public atmosphere it would turn out trashy. Britain needs to lose a war or win a revolution to get a good one.

Anonymous Coward says:

The comment in the article

“A better long-term solution would to accept that stupid people will always say offensive things, and that the best policy and punishment is to treat them with the contempt they deserve unless they clearly break laws other than those of good taste.”

fails to grasp the fundamental concept that if one does not have the legal right to make offensive comment then there is NO freedom of speech.

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