What country has just sentenced a man to eight months in prison for wearing an anti-police t-shirt, and another man to three months in prison for telling an “abhorrent” joke on Facebook? Iran, perhaps? China? No, it’s Britain.
Something has gone horribly wrong in Britain in recent years. The birthplace of John Milton (“Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience”), and John Stuart Mill (“Every man who says frankly and fully what he thinks is so far doing a public service”), has become a cesspit of censoriousness.
The frequency with which the police and legal system now throw into jail anyone judged to have committed a “speech crime” is alarming.
On October 11, Barry Thew, a 39-year-old man from Manchester, was sentenced to eight months in jail—eight months!—for the crime of wearing a t-shirt that said, “One less pig — perfect justice”.
He donned the t-shirt just a few hours after two police officers were shot dead in Manchester, on September 18. Some members of the public took offence at his flagrantly police-baiting tee, complained to the cops about him, and before you could say “Fuck da police” Thew was being found guilty of committing a Section 4A offence under England’s Public Order laws—that is, he “displayed writing or other visible representation with the intention of causing harassment, alarm or distress.”
On October 8, Matthew Woods, a teenager from Lancashire, was jailed for three months for—get this—writing jokes on his Facebook page.
Currently, a five-year-old Welsh girl called April Jones is missing. Woods decided to make some jokes about this, writing on FB stuff like “Who in their right mind would abduct a ginger kid?” and “I woke up this morning in the back of a transit van with [a beautiful girl] — I found April in a hopeless place.”
Funny? No. Criminal? Apparently, yes. For telling these tasteless jokes to the infinitesimally small number of people who can see his Facebook page, Woods was found guilty under the Communications Act 2003 of sending “a message or other matter that was grossly offensive.”
The judge described Woods’ “crimes” as “abhorrent.” I find the state’s imprisonment of a teenager for telling jokes infinitely more abhorrent than Woods’ sad stab at creating lolz.
These are only the most recent incidents of people being banged up for saying “grossly offensive” things. Last month, Michael Coleman, a member of the right-wing British National Party, was given a suspended eight-month prison sentence and 240 hours of community service for using the word “darkies” on his blog.
He blogged about what he stupidly considers to be “the difference in personality, perceptions and values of people of darker races and ourselves” and said Britain’s current immigration policy amounts to “darkies in, whites out.” For this, for expressing his petty prejudices on a little-read blog, he was found guilty of racially aggravated harassment. The politician who brought the case against him said his crime was to express views that are “not acceptable to the overwhelming majority of local people.”
Social-networking sites are being subjected to the most stringent censorship. In July, a 17-year-old boy was arrested and questioned by police after he sent insulting tweets to British Olympic diver Tom Daley. The 17-year-old was spared jail but was issued with a “harassment warning.” In March, a 21-year-old student called Liam Stacey was sentenced to 56 days in jail for making crude jokes on Twitter about a then very ill footballer called Fabrice Muamba.
Last year, following the summer riots that rocked many English cities, two young men were jailed for four years for setting up a Facebook page called “Smash Down Northwich Town,” a reference to the town in Chester where they lived. The page was all about how cool it would be to have a local riot. No one accepted their invitation to riot, though; there was no “smashing down.” Yet still the two men were convicted of a public order offense, criminalized for being fantasists effectively.
I guess we should just be grateful that The Clash were never banged up for likewise giving voice to riot fantasies in their 1977 hit “White Riot”: “I wanna riot, a riot of my own.”
Now, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), the body responsible for prosecuting crimes in England and Wales, is holding a series of meetings to clarify the law on tweetcrimes and FB misdemeanors, and to decide when it is legit, and when it isn’t, to bring criminal charges for trolling or inflammatory speech online.