United Kingdom

Britain's High-Tech Thought Police

British authorities target bloggers, tweeters, and t-shirt wearers for speech crimes.

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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.

I can save it a bucketload of time by telling it right now when charges should be brought against web-users for speech-based affrays: Never. Ever.

Speech is either free or it isn't. And if it is, then that means everyone must have it—not just nice people, but also nasty people; not just the right-on, but also the racist; not just well-educated judges who use their free speech to spout BS about how abhorrent certain jokes are, but also immature tweeters, Facebook saddos, and unpopular bloggers who use their free speech to insult minorities or make bad gags about missing girls.

Granting the state the power to determine what is abhorrent and what is acceptable, which thoughts may be expressed publicly and which may not, is a dangerous game. At the moment, the state might "only" be locking up racist joke-tellers or teenage buffoons, but who knows who else might fall foul of today's self-styled shapers of public morality. Blasphemers, perhaps? Queen Elizabeth-bashers? Sexist porno makers?

Allowing the state to determine the rightness and acceptability of words and ideas doesn't only lead to gobsmacking levels of censorious authoritarianism—it also robs us, the public, of our right and our responsibility to work out what is true and to challenge what feels like dross in the arena of public debate. As John Milton put it 350 years ago, "Let Truth and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?"

The most worrying thing in Britain right now is the rise of the idea that individuals may be rightfully harassed and punished by the state if they hold views that are "not acceptable to the overwhelming majority of people," as was said of the racist blogger.

That's the end of eccentricity right there, of any element of danger and daring in public discourse. If being unpopular is seen as a sufficient justification for being arrested and put on trial, then who will ever dare put their neck on the line and say controversial, offensive, properly interesting things? The top-down enforcement of thought-policing doesn't only mean we will see fewer racist ramblings and less teenage stupidity—it also means there'll be less intellectual risk-taking, and a stifling culture of back-watching conformism.

Besides, society has no right to punish people just because the overwhelming majority of people don't like what they say, as John Stuart Mill argued decades ago: "If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind." Absolutely. Free all Britain's tweeters, t-shirt wearers, and bloggers now!

NEXT: U.S., Israel Team Up for Practice War Against Iran

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  1. I don’t understand the second April Jones joke.

    1. At risk of digression, here’s a genuinely offensive one to celebrate my no longer living in Britain.

      Q: What was the worst part about being a Black Jew at Auschwitz?

      A: Having to sit at the back of the gas chamber.

      1. Trying to organize a burn-in would be worse.

      2. I find that very offensive. My grandfather died at Auschwitz. He fell out of his watchtower.

  2. Under the circumstances, was Michael Coleman’s “petty prejudice” really so petty?

    Sounds like his characterization of the UK’s policies might be closer to the mark than we civilized people might want to admit.

    WRT the Clash reference, that was what I thought of, also. The entire punk movement, its clothes, songs, imagery, etc. would be a jailable offence, today, apparently.

    1. Mind you that doesn’t mean I condone racism, or use words like “darkies”. But it certainly does seem that “whites, shut the fuck up or we’ll throw you in jail” would be accurate.

  3. The progressives won. Free healthcare, mental hygiene and fully covered birth control. Free speech, not so much.

    1. They also got rid of double jeopardy in 2003. The government can try again to convict you even if found innocent.

      1. On “civil rights” charges.

        1. Murder, manslaughter, kidnapping, rape, armed robbery and serious drug crimes

    2. Psht, your rights end where my feelings begin. You are causing pain and suffering by hurting someone’s feelings. Not that a cisprivileged white heteronorm would understand.

    3. “The progressives won. Free healthcare, mental hygiene and fully covered birth control. Free speech, not so much.”
      They were never for the latter anyway, nor could they begin to deconstruct its roots and origin.

  4. Damn, how many more months until Reason staff are going to be put into prison for not falling along with approved state media speech? If its so close as Britain, we will soon have hordes of yuppies and liberals screaming for similar laws here because of how good the British system is. “They don’t allow intolerance over there, why should we??”

    1. Government here is not too far behind. Many Universities, extensions of State governments, have hate speech bans on their campuses. Fortunately, we have legal foundations fighting like hell to overturn those bans.

      1. According to Stossel’s most recent article, you are not allowed to ask, either implicitly or explicitly, for sex at UNC.
        So does that mean rape is the only way to get laid now?

        1. NO MEANS NO…or maybe…I can’t keep it straight anymore.

          1. Really? I always learned it No means Yes and Yes means Anal.

        2. In Canada, you can ask for sex; get consent and still commit rape (well, sexual assault) if she withdraws consent in her mind.

          The provision in question establishes that the accused must halt all sexual contact once the complainant expresses that she no longer consents. This does not mean that a failure to tell the accused to stop means that the complainant must have been consenting. As this Court has repeatedly held, the complainant is not required to express her lack of consent for the actus reus to be established. Rather, the question is whether the complainant subjectively consented in her mind

          R. vs. J. A. [2011] 2 S.C.R. 440
          Supreme Court of Canada decision

          1. Gives new meaning to the term “thought crime”.

            1. Prosecuted for something someone else thought. How the fuck did things get _this_ messed up.

        3. I think if I were an undergrad at UNC, I’d wear a t-shirt every day that said “wanna fuck?”

          Then I’d retire on the proceeds of the lawsuit when they tried to make me take it off.

          -jcr

          1. Then you should be tried for crimes against good grammar…

  5. In July, a 17-year-old boy was arrested and questioned by police after he sent insulting tweets to British Olympic diver Tom Daley.

    He wasn’t arrested for insulting Tom Daley; he was arrested for threatning to kill Tom Daley.

    1. What was the charge?

      1. That aside, Stormy, it’s still a shitty country.

        And we’re headed that way, too.

    2. I just read the tweets. The kid didn’t need to be arrested, he needed to be beaten.

  6. What country has a man in jail for making a video?

    1. Romney should’ve asked Barry that last night.

    2. But that video incited TERRORISM. You’re not a TERRRORIST, are you?

      1. It’s not terrorism. Haven’t you heard?

    3. Violating his parole. You never throw people in jail for speech. You throw them in jail for a ‘campaign finance’ vioilation. Because Money != speech!

  7. What country has just sentenced a man to eight months in prison for wearing an anti-police t-shirt,

    With what happened to him, obviously the repellent didn’t work as advertised.

    1. Word. The kid should sue for fraud. I bought this anti-police tee-shirt, and I was covered in police!

  8. Isn’t it interesting how the expansion of the state directly correlates with progressivism (and thus totalitarianism)? Universal health care and a fat welfare state seem to go hand-in-hand with a society willing to crush free speech.

    1. Free speech gets in the way of the outcomes. When you propose that the entire country will bankrupt itself making sure your 22 yr-olds have free birth control, saying, “Hang on, maybe this isn’t a great idea…” is a jailable offence. Notice I used the British spelling of “offense”. You like that, don’t you? It’s very topical.

      1. “gaolable”.

        1. Funny, I got into a discussion with my daughter about Gaelic, Irish and Olde English. Spent the evening on YoutTube listening to speakers of the above three. Fascinating stuff. I had forgotten (or maybe I never knew) how German old English was. As for a Gaolable Offence, yeah, that Gaelic was pretty cool to hear.

          1. ‘Gaol’ doesn’t have a Gaelic etymology.

    2. Don’t worry, the Ministry of Love will sort it all out for us.

  9. The most worrying thing in Britain right now is the rise of the idea that individuals may be rightfully harassed and punished by the state if they hold views that are “not acceptable to the overwhelming majority of people”

    This idea is rising in the US, too. I am shocked and saddened by the number of so-called Americans I have heard supporting government suppression of “discriminatory” or “disrespectful” expressions.

    1. “not acceptable to the overwhelming majority”

      Yeah, that’s a free society.

      If they had tried that earlier, they could have squashed all Atheists, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, etc., all of whom were once “not acceptable to the overwhelming majority”.

      Basically, you can squash any new opinion that clashes with the general orthodoxy.

      It is appalling that this goes on in supposedly free western democracies.

      1. “Western democracy”
        “free”

        Dohohohoho.

    2. I can’t tell you how many time I’ve read articles by enviromentalist saying it should be illegal to question global warming, many suggesting jail or even death sentences for that.

      1. And I was just unhappy being equated with Holocaust deniers…

  10. I find it very disturbing that England is putting the right to not be offended before the right to free speech. The fact is, free speech is a right while not being offended isn’t one. England is a member of the EU, which has a charter of human rights that enshrines free speech, so what they are doing should be investigated by the EU and put to a stop. I don’t like the EU, but I like what England is doing to Internet users even less.

  11. THat makes a whole lot of sense dude. WOw.

    http://www.at-privacy.tk

  12. I guess there’s but one last thing to say about Britain. In the words of Cartman: Suck. My. Balls.

    What a travesty. My, how that nation has sunk.

    And they suck big time at soccer too.

  13. Difference is England doesn’t have a first amendment …no recourse…

  14. Britain – birthplace of Milton and J.S. Mill, oh yeah, and Eric Blair too. Uh-huh, never would’ve seen this coming. Nope, not at all.

  15. “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”.”

    That sounds excellent! Eight months may be too little for such a jerk, in fact.

  16. “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”.”

    That sounds excellent! Eight months may be too little for such a jerk, in fact.

    1. You had to submit it twice? Once for yourself to wank to. A second time to impress your cop buddies?

  17. Looks like we bailed out the wrong side in WWII.

    1. WWII was Fascists vs Communists and the Communists won.

      1. It was Fascist Type A vs Fascist Type B, and Facist Type B won.

        1. Um, you’re all wrong. It was Fascist A, Fascist B, Fascist C, Fascist D and Fascist E teamed up vs Fascist F, Fascist G and Fascist H.

          And they all won, except for the leaders of Fascist F, Fascist G and Fascist H.

  18. The really scary thing is that somehow the government became aware of these postings. I can only guess that the jailed writers have a tiny readership that practically nobody but the government ever saw. So how did the government notice them? They must review billions of postings, day in and day out. Yours. Mine. Everyone’s.

    Astonishing though it is, Britain has never had free speech. But it has been quite a long time since it has countenanced surveillance on this scale.

    1. What seems to happen in these cases, from what I’ve read, is that someone who reads these gets offended and snitches, probably getting a plastic police badge and a pat on the back afterwards.

  19. The really scary thing is that somehow the government became aware of these postings. I can only guess that the jailed writers have a tiny readership that practically nobody but the government ever saw. So how did the government notice them? They must review billions of postings, day in and day out. Yours. Mine. Everyone’s.

    Astonishing though it is, Britain has never had free speech. But it has been quite a long time since it has countenanced surveillance on this scale.

  20. george orwell anyone?

  21. In tomorrows news: The UK begins extraditing Americans for breaking their speech laws on the walls of UK Facebook users.

  22. This is insanity – and suspiciously sounds like Islam is taking over Europe. I know that sounds like a quack conspiracy, but here’s the thing – they’re arresting white males for uttering bad jokes or using the word ‘riot’, yet don’t dare arrest a Muslim who says the word ‘jihad’, much less follows a religion preaching said word – I know, some will say “Jihad has a different peaceful meaning!” – No. Jihad is the exact same thing as riot. It’s a bottled up angst inside usually a young adult in a transformational context. What we need to do is redefine riot, and start having parties called ‘riot parties’, that don’t involve destruction or vandalism. That’ll throw things for a loop!

    1. Channeling your inner Mark Steyn?

    2. Islam is taking over Europe. This has nothing to do with Islam, however.

  23. Sounds like his characterization of the UK’s policies might be closer to the mark than we civilized people might want to admit.

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