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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  1. icon
    Ima Fish (profile), 18 Sep 2012 @ 6:10am

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

    Seems pretty logical to me. The soldiers were sent to fight the Taliban, but instead they're killing innocent people. And he's pissed about that. As anyone should be.

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