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!