The police want a word about the names you call me


9:30 am - October 12th 2012

by Septicisle    


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Here’s something that really hasn’t been stressed enough: as deserved as the worldwide outcry was against the 2-year jail sentences for three members of Pussy Riot, that’s nothing compared to the 4-year stretches handed down to two young men in another authoritarian nation – namely our own.

These two men didn’t supposedly offend Orthodox sensibilities by performing their anti-Putin song in a church; all they did was set up pages on Facebook for events that didn’t take place. This was enough for the judge to describe what they did as an “evil act”.

Jordan Blackshaw and Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan will now be over a quarter of the way through their sentences, and will hopefully be released before too much longer. As acts of stupidity go, theirs was fairly spectacular: setting up pages on Facebook advertising meeting places for riots during the hysteria of last year clearly was asking for trouble.

Nonetheless, no one turned up at either, and in Sutcliffe-Keenan’s case he always maintained it had been a joke that had badly backfired. For the two to be sentenced to terms far in excess of what others who actually took part in the riots received was an overreaction of quite staggering proportions. That their appeal against the length of their sentences was also rejected is a stain on the justice system.

Yet this week has seen two more such cases prosecuted, neither of which should have ever reached a court. Azhar Ahmed was more fortunate than Matthew Woods, although not by much. Earlier in the year Ahmed was moved in the aftermath of the deaths of four servicemen in Afghanistan to post an angry Facebook status update in which he said that “all soldiers should die and go to hell”.

Ahmed did not say that soldiers should be killed; and as the court presumably accepted, Ahmed afterwards apologised to those who responded to his update, saying that he hadn’t meant for anyone to be upset by it.

Despite all of this, Ahmed was convicted of sending a “grossly offensive” message, and was told by district judge Jane Goodwin that he had gone beyond the bounds of freedom of speech. He was ordered to perform 240 hours of community service over two years; by comparison, the TV presenter Justin Lee Collins was ordered this week to perform 140 hours of community service after he was found guilty of a prolonged campaign of harassment against his ex-girlfriend.

Undoubtedly worthy of less sympathy is Matthew Woods. Woods pleaded guilty earlier this week to sending a grossly offensive message after he was arrested “for his own safety”. Woods’ crime was to post jokes on his Facebook page about both April Jones and Madeleine McCann, one of which was described by magistrate Bill Hudson as “abhorrent”. This seems to be a reference to Woods’ show-stopping gag:

What’s the difference between Mark Bridger and Santa Claus? Mark Bridger comes in April.

If delivered on a stage, it would have been worthy of boos. Posted online during a search for a child, with all the emotions surrounding such a disappearance, Hudson decided it was worthy of three months in prison.

Only Woods’ early guilty plea prevented it from being for the full six months available under the law. Earlier the same day the court fined a man £100 and ordered him to pay £100 in compensation after he called a woman who had pulled up alongside him in her car a “fucking black cunt”.

No amount of seminars between Keir Starmer, lawyers and the social networks are going to make a difference when the law was drafted at a time when the closest thing to Facebook and Twitter were Friendster and Friends Reunited. It’s also ridiculous that the onus should be placed on the social networks themselves to police what is and isn’t “grossly offensive” or “menacing” when it should be down to users to not outrage themselves.

Judges now seem to believe that prison sentences are an appropriate punishment for saying or writing things that clearly do not incite hatred of any variety but which do hurt feelings is a sad indictment of what a petty, pathetic bunch many of us appear to have become.

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About the author
'Septicisle' is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He mostly blogs, poorly, over at Septicisle.info on politics and general media mendacity.
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Reader comments


While I see your point about the difference I’m sentences being handed down, I think the level of outrage seems to be a factor.
Soldiers are now rightly respected for doing a job, and whether he apologised or not if you had stood at Wootton Bassett watching those coffins come past I think you would agree that those comments were grossly offensive and deserving of punishment.

“…I think the level of outrage seems to be a factor.”

So we’re running our justice system on how outraged people are? Thats a great road to start down on….

3. Chaise Guevara

@ OP

And in a rare non-internet example, a man just got eight months for wearing an admittedly unpleasant anti-police t-shirt on the day those two policewomen were shot.

“Soldiers are now rightly respected for doing a job, and whether he apologised or not if you had stood at Wootton Bassett watching those coffins come past I think you would agree that those comments were grossly offensive and deserving of punishment.”

I’m not going to get into a debate about whether soldiers deserve more respect than other people – it’s a personal view. But I will say that I don’t think being at Wootton Bassett would have somehow erased my belief in free speech, or put me in favour of allowing judges to lock up anyone who says something they dislike.

4. Chaise Guevara

@ 2 T Coles

“So we’re running our justice system on how outraged people are?”

I am outraged and offended by this policy of locking people up based on outage and offence…

There is a very definate difference between the opinion that Ahmed was expressing, and the actions of Blackshaw and Sutcliffe-Keenan.

One was clearly a passing of comment, although grossly distastful and hurtful, didn’t actually incite violence or facilitate it. Blackshaw and Sutcliffe did. Their actions, regardless of whether people actually turned up, were an attempt to facilitate criminal activity.

Whilst I agree that the later two individuals should be jailed. I do not believe that Ahmed should have been punished. We are becoming far too authoritarian with what can be said. We should accept that some people have different views, and that they don’t have to agree with us. We should also, in plain English I think, grow thicker skins. I for example, because of many of my contrary views to some people on this site, have been called horrific things, but should they be punished for it by the courts? of course not. Even if they had said I should die and go to hell I wouldn’t think they should be punished. If on the other hand they said they would kill me and then I would go to hell then yes a line has been stepped over.

I worry when an authority starts telling us what we can say to the point that they seek to enforce opinion. Its sounding all rather soviet to me.

Congratulations on actually having a post defending a liberal position. Nobody should face criminal sanction MERELY for expressing an opinion that others find offensive.

What is interesting in these cases is that the perpetrators, when making these comments, took no step to conceal their identities, believing presumably that they possessed freedom of speech. The chilling effect of these judicial decisions will be to deter some from commenting on public affairs and propel others into doing so anonymously.

This will only get worse as The Industrial private prison complex expands. More people need to go to jail so private corporations can get their hands on more corporate welfare. In the US now, private prison companies fund politicians campaigns, who will write more laws sending ever more people to prison.

And tories bang on about Europe taking our freedoms away. ha ha ha

@ Ben

Congratulations on actually having a post defending a liberal position.

When the cat’s away………

9. Chaise Guevara

@ 5 Freemen

“One was clearly a passing of comment, although grossly distastful and hurtful, didn’t actually incite violence or facilitate it. Blackshaw and Sutcliffe did. Their actions, regardless of whether people actually turned up, were an attempt to facilitate criminal activity. ”

IIRC, one of the riot commenters was attempting to incite violence – and in fact was arrested when he turned up to witness the fruits of his labour – whereas the other one only wrote the comments as a drunken joke, which he took down and apologised for the following day. I can look up sources if you like.

Therefore, the latter should not have been arrested IMO. Certainly it was ridiculous that they got the same sentence – even if we are going to outlaw dark humour, is it really on the same level as a deliberate attempt to incite violence?

Agree with the rest of your post.

10. margin4error

These cases are not comparable.

People plotting to riot – all be it stupidly publicly through facebook – are committing a quite clear cut crime just as people plotting to rob or murder in any other circumstance are as well. Society needs to act to protect life and liberty.

But that is very different to people telling jokes that a large part of the public are offended by. That is just part of our free expression and free speech. Monty Python offended huge numbers of people with the Life of Brian – but we didn’t lock them up for not conforming – and nor should anyone be locked up for not conforming.

It is simply dictatorial and vicious to do so.

But this isn’t about an attack on social media. It is about an attack on free speech that goes much wider.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2012/oct/11/manchester-man-jailed-tshirt-police?INTCMP=SRCH

The idea that certain opinions “go beyond” the right to free speech is utterly sickening and anyone who holds such a view is part of the problem not part of any solution.

After all – we look on incredulously when Morrocans are locked up for wearing heavy metal t-shirts or Muslims turn violent over cartoons and criticism of our faith.

Yet our society is descending into similar anti-liberty mentality in which emotional outrage of the mob over-rules individual rights.

sickening!

Surely the test would be if the action, comment or posting put anyone at risk by threatening them or encouraging others to do so.

On that basis, you could argue the Facebook postings did, although they really should have been taken with a pinch of salt – in the same way as everyone who mutters the words “I’m going to kill you” does not end up on an attempted murder charge.

As for the others, while I don’t like what they have written, offending someone or causing outrage is too subjective to be policed by the courts.

I have no problem with the angry sentiment, but I think you’re wrong to say:

“No amount of seminars between Keir Starmer, lawyers and the social networks are going to make a difference when the law was drafted at a time when the closest thing to Facebook and Twitter were Friendster and Friends Reunited.”

While I agree that the social networks don’t need to be involved in such discussions (except as organisations with the normal right to respond to consultation), it’s perfectly appropriate for Keir Stammer to be consulting on new guidelines for the CPS on whether or not to prosecute the kind of cases you highlight above.

There is an essential distinction, often ignored, between breaking a stupid law and being prosecuted for it. The CPS Public Interest Code, the key guide for prosecutors on whether they should pursue a prosecution or not, is quite clear on this, and in keeping with the principles set out by the Attorney General in 1951, who said then that:

“It has never been the rule in this country – I hope it never will be – that suspected criminal offences must automatically be the subject of prosecution.”

What Stammer is seeking to do is provide updated guidance, for a social network world, on whether cases like this should be prosecuted, and perhaps specifically their fit with the CPS Public Interest Test’s “factors tending against prosecution” in cases where:

“The seriousness and the consequences of the offending can be appropriately dealt with by an out-of-court disposal which the suspect accepts and with which he or she complies.”

This guidance can and should be provided quite independent on whether the law is stupid or not – a matter over which Stammer has no say – and will, if it is good guidance, stop cases like the ones you cite coming to court.

Well said.

The number of such cases is rocketing up and will continue to do so, and this threatens to become a really serious infringement of freedom of speech.

It’s terrifying that posting a crap joke on Facebook can now land you with 3 months inside.

Broadly speaking I think the distinction Freeman and others have been making is right: there’s a world of difference between using Facebook to incite or organise criminal activity, and using it to tell sick jokes or express outrageous opinions. But I think it would be going too far to say *all* speech that stops short of inciting crime should be protected, or that no-one has a right to protection from speech they find offensive or distressing. It surely ought to be possible to take action against trolls who set out to cause emotional pain to the families of dead children by posting on memorial walls, for instance. Drawing the line is going to mean deciding when it’s fair enough to cause offence and distress, even deliberately – which it must be sometimes if we want to allow for (e.g.) mockery of cherished institutions, beliefs etc. – and when it isn’t.

15. margin4error

GO

There is of course a distinction between free speech and freee expression – and harassment of individuals and families. Harassment is illegal by whatever means one undertakes it. Causing offence by the act of free expression should not be.

@9. Chaise Guevara

Unfortunately, when you are dealing with something such as rioters. The ‘drunken joke’ excuse doesn’t really carry weight, as you might imagine it wouldn’t carry weight when someone steals something, even as a prank.

The problem with it is that it can still lead to violence. It is a good point though that sentences should not have been similar. There is something certainly more sinister about trying to whip up violence, intending that it cause damage.

As for the guy who made a drunken joke. Looks like it was egg in face. He must win the award for stupidest person of the year award with that one though.

17. margin4error

Paul

Do you think perhaps that since 1951 we have actually seen a move to the more rigid implementation of rules and laws in England?

I ask because I suspect at the heart of this problem is a shift in culture from convention to letter of the law. Our laws were largely penned in an age when it was widely understood that they were a guide for living right, but nor a set of absolute rules to abide by. Obviously crimes like theft or murder were always prosecuted where possible. But two mates having a punch up, 16 year olds being permitted a pint in the pub after work, causing offence – these were “crimes” we as a society were comfortable with not prosecuting under almost any circumstances.

Perhaps with the “performance indicator” culture that has become such a part of scrutinising value for money and good practice in business and public service – we have seen that sort of common-sense non-enforcement eroded. Now one can be refused a pint at the age of 20 if a shop suspects you plan to share it with a 17 year old. Now, a night in the cells to cool down is scarcely ever deemed sufficient when two mates throw a few punches at eachother. And perhaps now, a degree of personal condemnation isn’t enough when some one’s views don’t suitably conform.

I’d like to think a sensible non-enforcement culture could be established for online activity – but I suspect the English have become somewhat too infantilised by the rules governing their lives to make that work, and even if it does, how do we re-assert it for life outside the interweb?

It all depends who you are. Always remember it is only class war when the poor fight back. Yet the status quo is permanent class war waged by the tories on the rest.

So if you are a low life and writes something offensive about the police on a T shirt you get sent to prison. As happened yesterday. Or if you write something offensive on twitter about the missing girl in Wales you get sent to prison. As happened last week. However if you are a stuck up tory MP who calls the police “fucking plebes” you don’t go to prison,you dont even get arrested, and you don’t even lose your job, and the Prime Minister stands by you. Always nice and sleazy in tory land.

19. Man on Clapham Omnibus

@18

I totally agree with you. The fact is, like Putin, the long arm of the state is growing ever longer. Internet surveillance (I’m sure being applied here as I write) together with gross civic violations on the part of the security services ,including gunning people down in the street seem to be the order of the day. All this activity is highly class based with the so called ‘perpertrators’ often not able to express themselves in a way ‘Melud’ finds acceptable. They should all be free in my opinion and none should be held culpable for things that never happened.

20. Chaise Guevara

@ 16 Freemen

“Unfortunately, when you are dealing with something such as rioters. The ‘drunken joke’ excuse doesn’t really carry weight, as you might imagine it wouldn’t carry weight when someone steals something, even as a prank.”

I’m certainly not saying that people should be able to shout “just joking!” and establish reasonable doubt. But it genuinely came off as a joke. The tone was silly, and I think the humour was that he was demanding a riot in a place where it would never happen. Facebook has a million stupid groups demanding such things (one I saw demanded that everyone go out on a certain day and panic-buy carrots).

If I had done the same with the place I grew up (a smallish Home Counties village with a large retired population), I wouldn’t expect anyone to take it seriously if they knew the place.

It’s not clear whether he apologised and retracted it before or after he knew the police had been informed. If the former, that argues strongly for a lack of malice.

“The problem with it is that it can still lead to violence.”

True, and in that case you have to evaluate the liklihood of it being taken seriously.

I can imagine a stand-up comic going on TV and saying “I think we should have a riot in [insert small and idyllic placename here]!” for a laugh. I can’t imagine them being arrested for it, even if some lunatic DID decide to take the words at face value and comply.

“As for the guy who made a drunken joke. Looks like it was egg in face. He must win the award for stupidest person of the year award with that one though.”

Well, he was pissed. No way he deserved to be jailed, though. I don’t think what he did should be criminal, but even if we accept that it is, we should be looking at a slap on the wrist here.

In these offence cases, the courts of law seem to be bowing before the court of public opinion, jailing people because their comments offended people who only know the story via an overexcited and incomplete account in the newspaper. That is not good.

Just to make clear, I don’t think Jordan Blackshaw and Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan should have been let off or just given a caution; given the circumstances, I think the community order handed down to Ahmed would have been far more appropriate for both. 4 years was though grossly disproportionate.

Paul: I take your point, but I think the key here is that the law is far too broadly drafted and needs to be either rewritten or repealed altogether, much like section 5 of the Public Order Act. The CPS apparently went along with the prosecution of Woods despite Starmer’s efforts, more than suggesting that they need a few more sessions while we wait (hopefully) for parliament to act.

22. Man on Clapham Omnibus

I think Sally has just about hit the nail on the head except I’d add that all this is just one aspect of an increasing Police state.

@3 Chaise

in respect of your comments re the Police officers I would have to agree but nonetheless its interesting to compare the press and social treatment of this case with that of the street vendor who was murdered in front of our eyes by the cops. I imagine the the perpetrator of the police murders will not retire on a big pension and get off scot free.

While I understand the feelings relating to service personnel deaths I completely understand that the funeral processions offer an opportunity to register protest at the illegal wars that Britain has and is currently waging in the middle east. As far as you are concerned it might be distasteful but I would suggest its probably not as bad gunning down foreigners at random.(Or beating them to death for that matter)

23. margin4error

MoCO

Not sure we are perpetrating any illegal wars anymore.

So if you are a low life and writes something offensive about the police on a T shirt you get sent to prison. As happened yesterday. Or if you write something offensive on twitter about the missing girl in Wales you get sent to prison. As happened last week. However if you are a stuck up tory MP who calls the police “fucking plebes” you don’t go to prison,you dont even get arrested, and you don’t even lose your job, and the Prime Minister stands by you. Always nice and sleazy in tory land.

Good point!

Margin4Error @17

I think there’s a lo in what you say, but I’d be reluctant to explain it solely on ‘infantilisation’ of the wider population.

We need to remember that the decision to prosecute in these cases was taken not by the general public, or even because of a clear expression of public will, but by fairly highly paid professionals within the CPS, who presumably are well used versed in the Public Interest Test etc..

I think the explanation for the (to us) strange judgments taken in recent months lies more in the way they have been bureacratised since 1951, such that any professional judgment they might make has become totally risk averse, ensuring first and foremost that no technical fault can be found with them. It is much easier to pass the book to the judiciary, even though the judiciary’s role is quite different from theirs, than to risk backlash.

Yes, this risk aversion may be partly a result of public pressure (perceived or real) to ‘apply the letter of the law, I suggest, related to deprofesionalisation/over-managerialism which has emerged in all public services since the early 1980s, and the loss of confident, decision-making autonomy public servants used to exercise (in general with good common sense), backed by a public service ethos rather than lines of accountability.

If the bad laws are not being scrapped, and there are no plans to scrap them, then you can be sure they’re not being scrapped because they’re a wanted tool in the management and control of the masses.
Given the ho-hah both the Tories and Libdems made about labour’s increasing authoritarianism prior to 2010 we should be seeing both parties keen on scrapping said laws…

27. margin4error

Paul

I tend to term infantilisation, the exact “by the book” risk aversion you describe. It is the growing unwillingness to take responsibility for use of one’s own sound judgement – the ultimate abdication of a responsibility that defines being an adult – that I believe is the root cause of this growing totalitarianism. It is just incompatable with Enlgish Law, which is so heavilly based on convention and sound professional judgement.

This is of course, as you say, made somewhat worse across the police and judiciary because of the willingness under public (press) pressure of our political classes to over-ride and criticise such judgement when it is unpopular. Add in the target driven managerisation of public (and wider) life and we actually may need a massive re-drawing of our legal system to avoid further descent into this sort of dictatorial control.

Of course with the chap with a t-shirt about the police – there is a rather obvious additional factor. Whether the public care or not, the judicial system is always going to be inclined towards harsh treatment of those opposing the judicial system and the people working within it. (In this case, police). That is innevitable, just as it is inevitable that when we are afronted, we tend to take a harsher view than when others are afronted. Our emotions play a part – which makes expressing views on the judicial system and the police particularly worthy of protection under the law. The reason for public justice is to remove emotional responses like personal insult and revenge playing a part.

28. Chaise Guevara

@ 26 Cylux

Well, that or they know that they can apply the law selectively so that it only harms acceptable targets, thus endearing them with certain sections of the public*.

*Stupid, malevolent types.

This (as I believe they say).

We have badly-framed (or perhaps I should say deliberately over-broad) laws which can, in effect, be used in almost any set of circumstances. This seems to depend largely on the socio-economic status of the accused and how quickly/effortlessly/cheaply a conviction can be secured.

It was absurd that Sutcliffe-Keenan was given the same sentence as Blackshaw. The latter was a total bell-end (will I be arrested for that? Chilling effects can be a real hoot, can’t they?) who deserved at least a large community sentence and a ban from internet use for a period of time. S-K’s actions were clearly nothing like as serious and should have been dealt with by a caution at the most. In neither case (nor in the one which came to light on Wednesday when someone else who did much the same thing got over 3.5 years for it) should imprisonment have ever been an option. Ditto for Woods.

In the case of Woods, by the way, Starmer (still no doubt feeling the pain of having various of his extremities singed in the aftermath of Paul Chambers’ successful appeal) has stated that the decision to prosecute was taken by the police not by the CPS, presumably because it was a summary offence, and that they had the power so to do. The same police seem to have done nothing about the mob which turned up outside Woods’ home with the clear intent of causing actual physical harm to him, however.

We seem to have descended into a society of self-appointed professional ninnies, clutching spasmodically at their pearls as they twitch their lace curtains, purse their lips and exclaim “It shouldn’t be allowed!”. These people are usually ‘offended’ or ‘outraged’ on behalf of other people (Fabrice Muamba, the family of April Jones, dead soldiers) whom they don’t even know.

Once we have laws which allow – indeed encourage – people to inform on others for what amount to ‘crimes against taste’, then we are – to use a technical and legal term – screwed. Anyone can claim to be offended by anything, and such supposed feelings can not be subjected to objective analysis. And so, ultimately, the only protection most of us can ever hope for under these laws is that those operating them use a modicum of common sense in their application. I see less and less evidence with every passing month that we can put our trust in that being the case.

On the general point, no-one has the right to have the State or its agencies protect them from ever being offended and, even if you accept that some such right does exist, then certainly no-one should ever be imprisoned for it, with all that that entails for that individual forever afterwards in a society in which redemption (using it in a totally non-religious sense) is considered ‘weak’, ‘namby-pamby’ and ‘being soft on crime’. There are better ways.

Oh, and spare a modicum of your contempt for the footling, self-righteous magistrate Hudson (do you know him at all, Paul? He’s near your neck of the woods, isn’t he?) allowing his own self-described ‘outrage’ to get himself nicely aligned with the baying mob in the public gallery who loudly cheered the sentence. These are people who have huge power over us, and we should expect better from them than – literally – playing to the gallery rather than exercising calm, rational justice.

Why isn’t Frankie Boyle in chokey? Is there a celebrity get-out clause?

32. Chaise Guevara

@ Cherub

Yes. Or at least there’s a people-have-heard-of-you-for-reasons-other-than-the-comment clause.

@ The Judge

You’re right, once again.

33. Man on Clapham Omnibus

@23 M4E

Did the Afghans invite us into their country then?

Were there international mandates? I’m not sure.

The cases of Ahmed and Woods are shocking and a sign the courts are getting a bit out of control with their interpretation of the law.

Both were prosecuted under section 127 of the Communications Act 2003, which makes it an offence to send a ‘grossly offensive’ message using a public communication system.

But this offence originated as a telephone misuse offence to prohibit nuisance phone calls. It’s aimed at stopping people phoning up female directory enquiries operators and harassing them about the colour of their knickers. (This is why it also outlaws indecent or obscene messages.)

It was never intended to regulate the content of speech on political, or good taste, grounds. If it had been so intended, it would apply to all speech, not messages, and would say so in plain words.

The fact that it applies to Twitter and Facebook at all is little more than an accident, based on the use of ‘messages’ in the Act. It does not apply to web pages, TV or radio, or ordinary speech. If Woods had linked to the original website with the jokes on, instead of putting them in the body of a Facebook message, the (presumably) law could not have touched him. That’s how arbitrary the application of this offence to the internet is.

If the law wants to police the subjective acceptability of the *content* of speech, it should be honest enough to say so in plain words (and risk being declared to be a completely awful and fascist law), instead of this present fudge.

“Judges now seem to believe that prison sentences are an appropriate punishment for saying or writing things that clearly do not incite hatred of any variety but which do hurt feelings is a sad indictment of what a petty, pathetic bunch many of us appear to have become.”

Quite. What happened to being strong enough not to get offended?

These laws are catastrophically flawed and quite frankly the police and justice system are seriously are wrong to enforce them at all.

Stop picking on us!

I’m not sure why anything offensive (grossly or otherwise) should be a criminal offence. Freedom of Speech means you may hear things that are offensive to you.

As long as you can conceivably ignore them (i.e. if you don’t like a Facebook post, you can unfriend the person) the police should have no right being involved.

What I find staggering is that one of Woods’ friends would actually contact the police because of a comment they read on Facebook.

You also have the farcical judgement of Justin Lee Collins being found guilty of abusing his girlfriend getting community service, while those people who abuse only verbally on social network sites getting prison sentences.

I seem to remember the tories and the tory press getting all worked up about police state, and civil liberties when in opposition. I guess it was all for show. I have never viewed the judiciary as being independent from govt. We also have the very sinister development of a cabal of judiciary and lawyers coming together under a Christian group. Good luck if you are a woman in court over abortion law or domestic violence.

38. Chaise Guevara

@ 36 WyattM

“What I find staggering is that one of Woods’ friends would actually contact the police because of a comment they read on Facebook.”

Do we know that the message was for friends’ eyes only? Last time I checked, some Facebook content can be set to public (wall posts, for example, or group comments), and Woods doesn’t exactly sound bright enough to ensure that his more compromising comments were kept out of the public domain.

@17. margin4error: “I ask because I suspect at the heart of this problem is a shift in culture from convention to letter of the law. Our laws were largely penned in an age when it was widely understood that they were a guide for living right, but nor a set of absolute rules to abide by. Obviously crimes like theft or murder were always prosecuted where possible.”

These are concepts that almost all of us understand and practice in ordinary life. The laws of the road are laid down in statutes and infringements expose the offender to prosecution or a warning if caught. These laws are explained in everyday language in the Highway Code which every motorist is expected to understand, but the Highway Code goes further by describing best/acceptable practice on the roads.

A breach of the Highway Code may not be an offence in itself but it may increase severity of punishment if an offence is also committed. In the main, however, the Highway Code acts as a guide for doing the right thing.

Further behavioural factors are good road manners. The Highway Code doesn’t tell drivers to be patient or accommodating to others, but generosity beyond law or code is often demonstrated.

Safe roads and pavements, smooth running traffic systems operate on a combination of all three factors: law, code and manners. Law enforcement on its own would be heavy handed and we rely on the social signals of manners and the Highway Code.

Sadly, and for some people tragically, police and prosecutors fail to apply the same common sense to “speech offences”. The fact that laws about “offensive speech” exist does not mean that a complaint should be prosecuted. Complaints should be investigated by the police in the same way as every other complaint, with consideration to impact and intent. We should expect that few investigations result in prosecution.

“Offensive speech” laws were largely created for well meaning reasons (eg to protect people who are genuinely menaced) so abolition of them would remove a potentially useful protection. And when those laws are used to prosecute people who crack lousy jokes, prosecutors compromise defence of the people who were intended to be the beneficiaries.

40. Chaise Guevara

@ Sally

“You also have the farcical judgement of Justin Lee Collins being found guilty of abusing his girlfriend getting community service, while those people who abuse only verbally on social network sites getting prison sentences.”

Agreed that it’s stupid either way, but I think Collins was found guilty of harrassment, not abuse. My newspaper did that standard trick of saying he’d been convicted “after” a trial containing accusations of physical abuse and so on. It didn’t actually say he’d been convicted OF abuse.

@36. WyattM: “I’m not sure why anything offensive (grossly or otherwise) should be a criminal offence. Freedom of Speech means you may hear things that are offensive to you.”

As a couple of others (m4e, Tom (iow)) have commented previously, this is about particular interpretation of particular laws. The electronic comms laws were intended to criminalise behaviour that scares a victim or identifiable victims, bringing poison pen letter law into the mobile phone age. They were not intended to criminalise expression that would be legal in other forms (eg Speaker’s Park Corner ranter).

I find it offensive that a man would wear brown shoes with a blue suit. Most men who wear brown shoes with a blue suit are harmless and the offensiveness is something that I have to brush off. But I’d raise a complaint if one of them threatened me; my complaint would be about the menace rather than his poor dress sense.

42. Northern Worker

1984 has arrived. Thought crime, however tasteless is an offence.

“The fact that laws about “offensive speech” exist does not mean that a complaint should be prosecuted. Complaints should be investigated by the police in the same way as every other complaint, with consideration to impact and intent. We should expect that few investigations result in prosecution.”

But generally, laws which are put on the books have always tended to get enforced. I think what has changed, maybe, is the ability of the police to prosecute people.

It’s very unwise to have laws on the books which could plausibly be used oppressively. You cannot – and never could – just trust in law enforcement bodies to have ‘common sense’. (Besides, there was a time not so long ago when it would be regarded as ‘common sense’ by many police to turn a blind eye to things like open racial abuse and discrimination in the workplace).

Labour (particularly under Tony Blair) completely failed to understand when passing laws that if you pass an law so vaguely worded as to allow almost anything, it is a bad law. It’s not enough to make a few vague and non-binding statements about how ministers will be terribly upset if it’s used for other purposes, even when the wording clearly allows it. The wording of the law is what matters.

“Do we know that the message was for friends’ eyes only?”

He stole it off sickipedia, where there were a load of other similar type ones that haven’t had publicity, and get posted semi-anonymously.

45. Chaise Guevara

@ 41 Charlieman

It’s worth mentioning, of course, that insults can become abuse/harassment/intimidation. Generally if there’s a flood of them directed in such a way that the target will hear/read them, and they’ve no way of blocking the messages without inconveniencing themselves unreasonably.

Say, for example, that Alice sends 20 nasty comments a day to Bob’s account on a social media site, and the only way he can prevent this is to make the account accessible to registered contacts only, which makes it harder for him to use the site to network and socialise.

But if Alice were writing these comments on a blog, and Bob kept accessing the blog after self-googling, I’d say that he’s volunteering to read the invective. And that’s one of the reasons that it’s ridiculous when an internetter is accused of “bullying” a celeb after writing nasty comments on some random forum somewhere.

Obvious caveats for libel, sending the messages to acquaintances of Bob, revealing Bob’s personal information, that sort of thing.

46. Chaise Guevara

@ 44 Planeshift

So it’s effectively just a retweet? Yeesh. This gets worse and worse.

I’m reminded of the Daily Mash headline after the first guy got convicted for trolling. It was something like: Uh Oh, Says Everyone On The Internet.

Oh yes Blair and New labour have to take huge blame for this. Always trying to play to the Murdoch media. Your point about the vague nature of the law is bang on. The question you have to ask …….is this vagueness through piss poor legislators or is it deliberately vague. Effectively handing powers to judges. I want to believe it is incompetence,, but I am not sure it isn’t deliberately vague. We started seeing this when Michael Howard was Home secretary. Vague law that can have endless interpretation.

Every time you give the police more power or weaponry, they will abuse it.
Like telling an 80 year old man is a terrorist, to remove him from a Labour party conference. Another Blair clusterfuck.

Speaking of Blair, I see a picture of him has now turned up , grinning with Jimmy Savile. Every time Blair is photographed with some one it always turns to shit.

48. So Much For Subtlety

6. Ben

Congratulations on actually having a post defending a liberal position. Nobody should face criminal sanction MERELY for expressing an opinion that others find offensive.

Very unusual for LC to defend a liberal position, I agree. I can’t wait for LC to criticise people losing their jobs for expressing an opinion. Or telling a joke for that matter. Like Carol Thatcher. Or Ann Winterton. Or those two Oxford students suspended for telling a racist joke. Or that Greek long jumper who was sent home from the Olympics.

Or someone like Frank Ellis who was sacked from a tenured position for expressing his opinion. Or James D. Watson who was both fired and all but deported from the UK for making comments deemed racist – even though they were actually somewhat defensible.

Or for that matter the outcry over Enoch Powell and Keith Joseph.

Or even, the blanket ban on members of the BNP – but not any Left wing extremist party – holding many government jobs.

But given the Left has no interest whatsoever in free speech, it is irrelevant. They have the whip hand and control the judiciary so they will go on restricting our freedom. Thank God the House of Lords stopped Blair from making religious vilification a crime. Bob B would be f**ked if they had.

The crackdown on free expression and quasi political persecution is very worrying. As usual the real people to blame are the spineless politicians. We developed a democratic system not because democratic decision making is inherently superior to autocratic decisions. Democracy was thought better because elected representatives would protect our freedoms from the arbitrary power of the state. It is no wonder that people are losing faith in the Westminster rabble when they refuse to fulfill their basic role. In fact, most of the restrictions on our free expression and waves of authoritarianism is coming from the very people who are supposed to be protecting our rights.

One can only wonder what Orwell would think about the type of people who read 1984 and do not see it as a dystopian nightmare but as an actual manual for governing. That is the type of spineless shysters who now represent us. The police are never going to ask for less powers for them and more rights for us. They are always going to do an Oliver and ask for more. It is up to the elected politicians to stand up for our rights and say no. The CPS and Procurator Fiscals are never going to desire to send fewer people to prison. If they had their way the country would be carpeted in prisons and they would imprison as many as possible for offending the nomenklatura. It is not their fault for being authoritarian because that is the very nature of the state unless we place restrictions on its arbitrary power. When thew nomenklatura had religious belief they cut out the tongues and hung blasphemers until we stopped them. So of course they will jail jokers on Twitter. The problem lies with the politicians who are failing to do their job of standing up for our rights.

Saying something offensive on Twitter or Facebook is not a crime. It is a fake crime. Words cannot hurt anyone. It is fake hurt by people who desperately want to be offended. The Twitterati reporting words to the police that they do not like are just a modern cyber version of the Blockleiters. Utterly contemptible human beings. Unless the politicians repeal their restrictive authoritarian legislation and start standing up for our rights the return to authoritarianism is only going to get worse.

@45. Chaise Guevara: “It’s worth mentioning, of course, that insults can become abuse/harassment/intimidation. Generally if there’s a flood of them directed in such a way that the target will hear/read them, and they’ve no way of blocking the messages without inconveniencing themselves unreasonably.”

But what you describe is harassment, which the law makers intended to prohibit. The law makers did not intend to ban tasteless jokes.

The problem is about interpretation of law and inappropriate prosecutions. Being generous, let’s assume that police officers and prosecutors are ignorant rather than acting as officious twats. It requires that society tells them that their interpretation is wrong.

Sometimes there is a small difference between harassment and free speech. I feel embarrassed that I live in a country where officials and courts fail to spot *huge* differences.

@37. Sally: “You also have the farcical judgement of Justin Lee Collins being found guilty of abusing his girlfriend getting community service, while those people who abuse only verbally on social network sites getting prison sentences.”

Justin Lee Collins deserved a community sentence because no benefit would result from banging him up. He has a personality disorder problem and most of us comprehend that prison does not fix that. Justin Lee Collins harassed his girlfriend according to the evidence. Law is incidental to his cure or resolution of his personal problems.

The farce is that police and prosecutors interpret tasteless jokes as harassment.

52. Chaise Guevara

@ Richard W

“The Twitterati reporting words to the police that they do not like are just a modern cyber version of the Blockleiters. Utterly contemptible human beings.”

It’s basically the online version of punching someone in the face because they disagree with you down the pub.

@49. Richard W: “Democracy was thought better because elected representatives would protect our freedoms from the arbitrary power of the state. It is no wonder that people are losing faith in the Westminster rabble when they refuse to fulfill their basic role.”

I think you’ve defined a very narrow form of democracy. The top down bit of democracy is about elected politicians, but we demand accountability of them or we can express disapproval outside of elections.

“It is up to the elected politicians to stand up for our rights and say no.”

In the cases above, politicians have created laws that are interpreted by police and prosecutors. And we also have notional separation between legislature, executive and judiciary. Many of us hang our heads in despair when a government minister speaks nonsense about a court case; not because s/he talks drivel but because s/he says anything at all. Justice is the courts’ business.

It is up to citizens to defend our rights. We, citizens, defend them by creating a different consensus.

(For the benefit of Libertarians: I borrowed a bit of Gramsci in the arguments above.)

54. Chaise Guevara

@ 50 Charlieman

Agreed. Whether the people responsible are ignorant, misguided, malicious or jobsworths is probably by-the-by in terms of dealing with the problem.

The recurring theme I’m getting here is: “If the law is defined badly, it will be abused, regardless of whether the abusers believe they’re doing the right thing.” This is probably a good reason to get archaic laws off the books instead of assuming people will ignore them. I think we’ve now got rid of blasphemy law, which is good, because not that long ago people used it to attempt an attack on the freedom of speech (and personal liberty!) of the producers of Jerry Springer: the Opera. Similarly, I’m glad we’ve removed the rare scenarios in which hanging was still legal (think it was treason and “burning her majesty’s ships”), because if not I suspect we’d have ended up using it against some particularly loathed criminal.

So the laws criminalising offence need to be reworded or removed altogether. The problem is that all of the victims I’ve heard of have been very unlikeable people, which lessens the chances of a public outcry, not to mention invoking the problem that PLENTY of people think “I don’t like that guy, so it’s ok to jail him”. Long-term, it would almost be a good thing if a sympathisable person got hit by one of these laws, but with the judges seemingly basing their decisions on public opinion, that doesn’t seem likely.

CG@54:

“I think we’ve now got rid of blasphemy law”

Except that it has effectively been replaced by ones which criminalise ‘causing offence to someone’s religious beliefs’, or some such cant.

“The problem is that all of the victims I’ve heard of have been very unlikeable people”

Which is our main problem as I see it; we are being required by our principles to defend in this one area people whom you would tend to want to cross the street (figuratively or literally) to avoid in any other context. The effort must be made, however, because it is in the hard cases that the corrosion begins (because it’s ‘popular’), and it is in those cases where defending the right of non-violent freedom of expression is most urgently needed.

Perhaps we need a small group of well-known advocates of freedom of speech – people of high public profile and regard (which would rule out the likes of Russell Brand, for example) – to conduct ‘Spartacus’ campaigns when one of these cases arises; to repeat on their own web presences the ‘offending’ statements and challenge the plod and Keir Starmer to come for them as well. The resultant bad publicity for the authorities is likely to be the only thing which has any chance of getting these dangerous laws removed.

I don’t hold out much hope for that, though.

56. Chaise Guevara

@ 55 The Judge

“Except that it has effectively been replaced by ones which criminalise ‘causing offence to someone’s religious beliefs’, or some such cant.”

Well, yes.

“The effort must be made, however, because it is in the hard cases that the corrosion begins (because it’s ‘popular’), and it is in those cases where defending the right of non-violent freedom of expression is most urgently needed.”

Agreed. The situation does seem ripe for the tabloids to get all outraged over the very illiberal laws they support. Like how they’re all for ASBOs when used against working-class and young people, then pull out the You Couldn’t Make It Up Cannon the moment a middle-aged grandma gets hit with one.

“Perhaps we need a small group of well-known advocates of freedom of speech – people of high public profile and regard (which would rule out the likes of Russell Brand, for example) – to conduct ‘Spartacus’ campaigns when one of these cases arises”

I can’t remember if any famous people were involved, but when that guy got arrested for joking about blowing up an airport, loads of people started posting similar comments on Twitter in protest. If the authorities had tried to charge all those people, the resulting farce might have brought the law down. As it was, they ignored it, showing again that said law is primarily used for bullying selected victims.

Come to think of it, that guy was a sympathetic victim.


Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. Lee Griffin

    Another shameful day of silence from @LibDems about this issue? http://t.co/RgEm2XGc

  2. Anthony Rowbottom

    You think the Pussy Rioters were handed harsh sentences? What about the injustices happening right here in the UK http://t.co/rzp969pQ

  3. Jason Brickley

    The police want a word about the names you call me http://t.co/uSTjPato

  4. leftlinks

    Liberal Conspiracy – The police want a word about the names you call me http://t.co/i53EWmZf

  5. Owen Blacker

    RT @libcon The police want a word about the names you call me http://t.co/BxE0emLt

  6. anna-rose phipps

    The police want a word about the names you call me | Liberal Conspiracy http://t.co/WSOk7Qxi via @libcon

  7. Chris Gerhard

    This article contains the joke that about April Jones. Poor taste? Yes. Sick even but criminal? It should not be. http://t.co/RHWrzSz4





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