UK Cops Have Decided Impolite Online Speech Is Worth A Visit From An Officer

from the waste-of-time,-money,-and-oxygen dept

If you’re not a resident of the UK, thank the First Amendment for not turning Twitter fights into police action. The UK’s anti-hate speech laws have been extended to cover merely impolite speech — at least according to UK law enforcement agencies who say ridiculous things like this. [h/t Amy Alkon]

In September, the official South Yorkshire Police account tweeted, “In addition to reporting hate crime, please report non-crime hate incidents, which can include things like offensive or insulting comments, online, in person or in writing. Hate will not be tolerated in South Yorkshire. Report it and put a stop to it.”

So, that’s where things are at in the UK. That has led to cops showing up at people’s doors to discuss online incivility. It’s a heckler’s veto with the weight of the UK government behind it — something that can be abused to silence critics of people who can’t handle criticism.

In this case, it was Irish comedy writer Graham Linehan being visited by the Norwich Police Department on a Sunday morning. He was apparently reported by outspoken trans rights activist Adrian Harrop. Linehan had posted tweets criticizing Harrop’s televised debate with a woman who had paid for a billboard depicting the dictionary’s definition of the word “woman,” which bothered Harrop so much he complained and got that taken down as well.

Harrop was the reason Linehan was talking to police officers about tweets that didn’t even violate the Twitter Rules. He had merely suggested Harrop’s steamrolling of the billboard buyer during a televised debate might have been “male privilege.” Another tweet alleged Harrop had threatened women and doxxed them for not being friendly enough to his cause. This is the tweet Harrop admits bothered him so much he needed to call the police. This is the disturbing, but ultimately useless, outcome of Harrop’s decision.

After explaining to Linehan why he was there, the police officer—whom Linehan says was polite and friendly—asked Linehan if he would stop engaging with Harrop. Linehan told him he had no intention of stopping, the officer left, and Linehan immediately tweeted about what had just happened. The whole episode, he says, took about 15 minutes, and the police never told him which tweet Harrop found so offensive.

The country’s laws say police can do this. So, naturally, they are doing this, even though it appears to be a massive waste of resources. This one ended rather quickly, with no violence or threats emanating from those sent to restore the internet’s civility. But not every interaction will end this way. Some may end in criminal charges. Some may end with deployments of force. The UK government might think complaints like these will be handled civilly by public servants with the power to deploy deadly force, but that’s a big assumption when the underlying “crime” is incivility. Confusion and/or hostility from people being accosted by law enforcement for being a bit too extreme online is probably a normal reaction. Police officers tend not to handle either of these emotions very well.

And there’s this, which is the Norwich PD’s official response to talking to a bathrobe-clad Linehan on a Sunday morning about tweets that wouldn’t even ruffle Twitter’s TOS feathers:

“Whilst we recognise that there is Freedom of Speech in the UK, it is important that the use of Social Media respects diversity and takes into consideration the feelings of others.”

You can’t recognize free speech while still insisting everyone has to be nice to everyone else while online. You can hope that’s what will happen, but you can’t demand this of the general population. Unless you’re in the UK, in which case you can, because you don’t really recognize free speech and should probably remove that phrase from the government’s collective vocabulary.

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Comments on “UK Cops Have Decided Impolite Online Speech Is Worth A Visit From An Officer”

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68 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Very foolish on his part. Now he’s on their radar.

Police are well within their rights to de-escalate a situation before it reaches the point of crime.

Verbal aggression does not work in a world completely connected by the internet. In the US, it’s actually a felony to “annoy” someone anonymously online: 47 USC 223(h)(1). Anonymous hecklers actually give the feds probable cause with just a single epithet hurled while hidden behind a monitor.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

You use that legal citation. I do not think it means what you think it means.

(h)(1) is the definition for "telecommunications device", so let’s look at the rest of 47 USC 223. For instance:

(a) (1) (A) (ii): initiates the transmission of,

any comment, … or other communication which is obscene or child pornography with intent to abuse, threaten, or harass…

So… yes, there’s a felony out there, described by 47 USC 223, but it’s not simply that you’re an annoying twit. You have to be an interstate (or international) annoying twit in a very specific fashion.

John Roddy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/521/844/

How convenient. Section 223 just so happens to be where the content-specific restrictions of the Communications Decency were codified. The government was almost immediately banned from enforcing it, and SCOTUS unanimously struck it as unconstitutional in the above case.

The parts that remain are ridiculously specific. If you think you’ve read it in a way that covers "anonymous" "hecklers" "online," you read it wrong.

PaulT (profile) says:

“The whole episode, he says, took about 15 minutes, and the police never told him which tweet Harrop found so offensive.”

There so many problems here, but this is the sort of thing that really bugs me. If a person is not informed of where they supposedly stepped over the line, not only is it impossible to address any false accusations, it is also impossible to prevent future transgressions. Especially given the context here:

“Linehan had posted tweets criticizing Harrop’s televised debate”

So, someone goes on TV to debate an issue in public, and criticism of that debate can lead to police action, but you will not be informed of what triggered the action? I mean, it’s great to see that there doesn’t seem to have been any actual consequences other than 15 minutes of everybody’s time and money being wasted, but that’s a real concern right there.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Transgender lobbyists

I can’t speak for any specific transgender lobbyist, but the transgender lobby simply wants to be accepted as any other human being, much like women or blacks.

I get that society in the real world just doesn’t like weird people (or anyone outside their church community) but if we’re going to continue to reap the benefits of a large society (e.g. with a population in the hundreds of millions) we’re going to have to learn to expand the breadth of our plurality. And that means accepting, acknowledging and enforcing the rights of the weirdos.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

He’s been at the forefront of fighting a bad piece of legislation that is being proposed by SOME trans activists in the UK. It’s also opposed by many other people. I find his interventions quite funny and to the point, never seen him engage in harassment or “sending hate mobs at trans women”.

Perhaps you have an example?

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

I’m not aware of Linehan’s overall conduct on Twitter, but that’s irrelevant to the discussion. First off, if the problem was an overall trend in his comments rather than a specific complaint, it could have been dealt with via Twitter’s own terms and conditions rather than law enforcement, and that would have been more appropriate.

If police did need to get involved for some reason, then either it’s because of a specific comment, or it’s because of overall harassment. He was apparently led to believe it was for the former, but was not given the necessary information as to which comment triggered the reaction. That’s not right, especially when the force of law is supposedly behind the response he got.

He may well be on the wrong side of this issue but even if he is there’s still nothing to excuse the type of reaction he’s got, assuming the version of events presented is accurate.

Anonymous Coward says:

The world has changed, and the cyberbullies are throwing a huge tantrum.

“Impolite” speech is “verbal aggression,” which is a precursor to things like physical aggression and incitement. The world is too connected for the old rules to survive. We’re already seeing people lose their right to own guns for simple verbal aggression, as it is a big “red flag” that is going to be eradicated politically.

Even worse for the cyberbullies is that this will apply retroactively, thanks to the #metoo movement. It’s not enough to get it right once you are informed of the new rules. Now your past behavior must also pass muster in the present.

If you look at it genetically, this will make the species smarter, kinder, and save a lot of money from damage which is no longer caused by people who “say mean things” online.

There will soon come a day where people who sue words like “nutjob” will find themselves unemployable and completely ostracized just like those who use things like the n-word. Websites which allow this will also be toxic to sponsors. The world has simply changed. Get used to it. This is just the tip of the iceberg. Bullying is no longer sustainable.

Nathan F (profile) says:

Re: Re:

There will soon come a day where people who sue words like "nutjob" will find themselves unemployable and completely ostracized just like those who use things like the n-word.

So.. if I use the word nutjob or.. the other n word (nutjob? numbskull? nitwit?) I will be ostracized? Something that I have noticed is that people who get all up in arms about someone talking mean about them, are often times doing that themselves.

Civility starts with yourself, not trying to force it upon someone else.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Something that I have noticed is that people who get all up in arms about someone talking mean about them, are often times doing that themselves.

Well, they consider themselves to be paragons of good behavior, and have appointed themselves arbiters of what other people can do or say. Because they are paragons, they do not need to look at their own actions.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

ANY verbal aggression will be seen as a danger signal to the society of the future. Look at #metoo: behavior that was tolerated forever is suddenly costing men their careers, and retroactively.

Verbally aggress at your peril. You’re no longer playing by today’s rules, but tomorrow’s and you won’t know if you are on the right side of them until then.

Being pro-slavery was a legitmate political position in 1858. We’ve made a leap from presentism to “futurism,” because people who know which behavior will be okay in the future are simply superior genetically to those who don’t. This is brutal Darwinism at work. All forms of bullies are being weeded out of the gene pool. Concurrently, we are moving towards socialism because capitalism gives too much power to those who abuse it.

Whether or not I agree with this iss irrelevgant. This is the way the world is evolving, like it or not.

trollificus (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

What you present there is an oracular prediction. You seem to think it is some future reality. This must come from either an exceptional talent for divination (scatomancy?) or existence in a bubble of like-minded people who all agree it must be true.

The results of my prognosticative endeavors? You are under 25, urban and/or at university. The people you associate with all think you’re smart, and the group agree almost 100% on almost everything. That about right?

I seriously doubt your prophetic utterances will prove to be any more valid than were mine at that age.

Mason Wheeler (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

This is brutal Darwinism at work.

Which is why it will fail. The entire history of civilization is the story of the human race’s collective attempt to be better and stronger than the force of natural selection. And it’s working!

To give just one obvious example, just look at all of the good that’s been done by people who wear glasses. People who, in an earlier time, would have been considered blind and helpless, their potential to contribute to society nullified by the inferiority of their weak genes. We’ve beaten that, and we’re better off for it. And we’ll beat this and be better off for it too.

trollificus (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Sooo…in your equation, hurting someones’ feelings in any way equals “bullying” and eternal unemployment, censoring and social shunning is a suitable punishment for hurt feelings? And this is to be enforced retroactively?

I guess it’s too much to ask you to look at this from the outside, or from the viewpoint of a rational person?

David says:

Wait a moment here:

The UK government might think complaints like these will be handled civilly by public servants with the power to deploy deadly force, but that’s a big assumption when the underlying "crime" is incivility.

Not every police force carries and engages deadly weapons as thoughtlessly as the ones in the U.S. I seem to remember that the default is hands and baton in the UK.

firebird2110 (profile) says:

Re: ihave an idea

There have been comments from police leaders to the effect that they would much rather govt not extend Hate Speech laws because of the resource implications. Meanwhile the public is getting collectively more than a little bit pissed off about real crimes going uninvestigated (let alone solved and the criminals prosecuted) while all this bullshit goes on.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Resistance = Terrorism

Yes, but he’d be called a terrorist anyway, as any kind of resistance, including peaceful demonstrators wearing pussy hats are regarded as terrorists by the pro-establishment.

At this point the label terrorist doesn’t mean anything. I Wrote a piece three years ago when Jason Leopold was being called a FOIA Terrorist because he was trying to engage in public oversights of government departments. That counts as terrorism according to officials of the United States.

Our historians, fortunately, keep track of all that Guevara did, whether it was naughty or nice, and we get to choose whether to judge him based on his circumstances, or based on our ethical standards today. But calling him a terrorist has very little to do with that. Rather it has to do with what side he was on.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I’m always quite suspicious when stories like this suddenly become notable to people on the internet. Pre-internet, this kind of story would barely have made it to a local paper, even if true.

The story as written literally just says “a landlord said this” and the “journalist” doesn’t appear to have attempted to confirm the story with police sources. It also just happens to support the reporting site’s pronounced political stance. Fishy. Let’s look at another source:

https://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/news/greater-manchester-news/police-ask-owners-cuban-restaurant-15601416

“But a source said a force licensing officer merely paid a visit on behalf of Tameside council to make him aware of the complaint and “ask if he would consider taking it down.”

They insist he was not told he had to or threatened with an investigation.”

Hmmm…

I’m all for freedom of speech and all that, but this stinks of “guy running Cuban restaurant gets free press by pretending he’s being persecuted” or “Cuban restaurant has right-wing neighbour who complained about them and the cops had to warn them”, but not “police threaten criminal prosecution if flag not taken down”.

Rekrul says:

In September, the official South Yorkshire Police account tweeted, "In addition to reporting hate crime, please report non-crime hate incidents, which can include things like offensive or insulting comments, online, in person or in writing. Hate will not be tolerated in South Yorkshire. Report it and put a stop to it."

So they’re investigating things that they admit aren’t actually crimes?

So the encounter should go something like this;

Police: Hello, we’re here about something you posted online.

Person: Have I broken any laws?

Police: Well, no, but…

Person: Then we’re done here. Good day.

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