The UK's free speech laws are so riddled with exceptions
that news of someone being investigated for an "offensive" posting hardly raises an eyebrow these days. This fact doesn't make the following story any less ridiculous, but it does explain why "tweeting" and "police officers" are being used in the same sentence.
Michael Abberton, a Cambridgeshire blogger, found himself talking to two police officers after a recent tweet of his made a UKIP (UK Independent Party)
member feel bad. What Abberton posted to his Twitter feed was a fact-checked version of an anti-UKIP flyer
that mockingly pointed out ten reasons to vote for the party, including the plan to raise taxes on the poorest 88% of the country and abolish laws that protect personal liberties.
According to Abberton, a complaint from an unnamed person led to the following incident
They wondered if I was the Michael Abberton on Twitter and I said yes. Then they said this was in relation to a complaint that had been made by a certain political party in relation to tweets I had published about them and one tweet in particular which talked about ten reasons to vote for them…
The police explained that I hadn't broken any law - there was no charge to answer and it really wasn't a police matter.
They asked me to 'take it down' but I said I couldn't do that as it had already been retweeted and appropriated, copied, many times and I no longer had any control of it (I had to explain to one of the officers what Twitter was and how it worked). They said that they couldn't force me to take it down anyway.
So, if the police could do nothing and it wasn't really a law enforcement issue, why did they bother showing up? Abberton points out that the officers, though being incredibly polite and almost embarrassed, couldn't really explain why they were standing in his house discussing Twitter posts.
Abberton then asked if he was forbidden to tweet about his conversation with the police.
I asked if I could tweet about the visit. The straight answer was 'no', as this might appear prejudicial in light of the upcoming election and the police must appear to remain neutral. But they couldn't stop me from doing so, as I had Freedom of Speech. Incredulously, I said, "...but you must realise how this looks!"
Everyone realizes how this looks. It looks as though someone at UKIP has enough pull to persuade the local police department to drop by and have a chat with someone it perceives to be an annoyance. Abberton's tweet simply fact-checked some anti-UKIP handout, something which was a clearly neutral undertaking. That he found a majority of the claims to be supported by UKIP's own documents may be damning for UKIP, but that problem originates with the party, not with Abberton's detective work.
A police spokesman tried to deflect criticism from the department's actions, first by claiming routine complaints are routinely investigated, and then by claiming the police were not a censorious force.
"[A] gentleman has a right to free speech – absolute total right to free speech – we can't tell people what they can and can't say on the internet, as long as it's within the law. We certainly don't go to people's houses and say: 'You can't tweet about this'. This is not 1930s Germany."
No, it isn't "1930s Germany." But that's hardly comforting when police are, in fact, going to people's houses and asking them to remove tweets
Does this ring a bell?
They asked me to 'take [the tweet] down'…
Sometimes all it takes is a little "friendly persuasion" from law enforcement officers to get the intended result, whether or not the justification is legal. Despite everyone in the police department claiming they had no power to make people remove tweets, tweets were removed.
And whilst acknowledging the fact that the police had no right to censure my posts, in order to show goodwill I removed all instances of the poster where I'd sent it @someone, and have not tweeted about the visit or about that political party since.
The tactic worked anyway, and this outcome is probably better than the UKIP complainant probably expected. So, you don't have to be literally 1930s Germany
to get the same results. All you have to do is allow political power to guide your police force and hope that goodwill efforts will achieve the completely unenforceable outcome the complainant is seeking.