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.
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:
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 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.