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Comment: Criminalising social media is criminalising freedom of speech

I’m confused by the news of late.

Matthew Woods – 12-weeks in prison for posting grossly offensive posts relating to the missing April Jones. Azhar Ahmed – a two-year community order, including 240-hours community service, for posting on Facebook that ‘troops will die in hell’.

On the very same day, Justin Lee Collins – ex-celebrity turned domestically abusive lover, who launched a campaign of verbal, psychological, and allegedly physical abuse against his girlfriend over a nine-month period. He gets 140-hours community service.

Now, if you cannot identify the injustice in all that, then read it again.

What we are seeing is a frightening scenario where condemnable actions behind a computer screen are far worse than actions in person. The implications of this are not just restricted to the criminal field, though – freedom of speech, however naïve, is being eroded by knee-jerk reactions to an otherwise mundane area of prosecution.

Let’s start with the recent Matthew Woods posts. Mr Woods, an unemployed 19-year-old, is unquestionably a little misguided – after all, posting offensive comments online is just socially inept, as you are likely to offend someone.

Despite the nature of the tweets – sex, murder, and other bizarre ramblings – Woods is not a criminal.

Under the 2003 Communications Act, “sending a grossly offensive public electronic communication” is apparently a criminal offence. In the first instance, the wording of this implies offence is a crime. It is not and, if it were, it’s fairly safe to bet many stand-up comics, authors, and other public and private figures would have been strung up.

At the base of it, quite a few people never even knew such a law existed and, if it had been brought into public consciousness a little more, there would have been prosecutions pretty much all the time. Check my Twitter or Facebook page – go ahead, sue me or prosecute me.

The fact is that Wood’s ridiculous posts – which are most certainly irresponsibly bad taste – are no worse than any of the jokes I’ve read via text message. One read: “I’ve heard Welsh calendars are going cheap, because they’re missing April.”

My Dad sent me that text, forwarding it on from around 10 people before him who had it. Was I offended? Not really – it was in bad taste, and not particularly witty, and offensive, but I was not offended.

Was anyone else who read it? Probably not. Will he be sent to prison? I hope not.

But the fact is this – he seemingly could be, so long as someone made enough fuss about it.

Sickipedia, the site where Matthew Woods found inspiration to post the April Jones jokes, seems to be at the centre of all these “Twitter joke” prosecutions. The tone of the site is pretty much evident in its name – it is purely there as a collection of offensive, bad taste jokes, which many consider humorous.

Woods pleaded guilty to sending by means of a public electronic communications network a message or other matter that is grossly offensive (a charge which should not even be a crime, unless it incites criminal activity and/or hatred).

In mitigation, his lawyer said Woods acted in a “moment of drunken stupidity”, but the magistrate said the comments were so “abhorrent” he deserved the longest sentence the court could dispense. And so, he has 12-weeks in prison, and protective custody to stop him from being lynched.

In the latest Facebook prosecution case, Azhar Ahmed, a 20-year-old Dewsbury man, wrote on Facebook that troops should “die and go to hell” only moments after the latest spate of casualties in Afghanistan earlier this year.

It came to court because Natalie Taylor, 40 – who just so happened to be the mother of the dead Corporal Jake Hartley, 20 – found the post offensive.

That’s right – one person, whom the post was not even directly aimed at, claimed offence. The result is that this rather misguided individual gets 240-hours community service, and a two-month course to change his social behaviour.

Let’s go back to my introduction, just to put this in perspective. The same day as the above social media rulings, ex-celebrity Justin Lee Collins was found guilty of harassment of his lover, Anna Larke.  Over a period of nine-months, the court heard how Collins subjected Miss Larke to a torrent of mental abuse, and alleged physical abuse too.

This included probing into her sexual encounters in the past (to the extent of compiling a ‘sex dossier’), threatening her with violence, and allegedly even carrying out that violence on one occasion.

This is, no matter how you look at it, domestic abuse. And his sentence? A mere 140-hours community service.

That’s right – some unpaid work for an actual crime, one which ruins lives all over the globe, and even claims them in some circumstances.

The emphasis on criminalising poor taste remarks not only damages the concept of free speech, but it highlights how confusing, subjective, and purely unproportional the justice system is becoming.

Justice just is.

Perhaps the best known case of the ‘offensive Tweet’ was Paul Chambers “Twitter joke trial”, where the defendant joked he would “blow up” Robin Hood Airport after it was closed by snow.

The original tweet was posted in 6th January 2010 and, after an unrelated Google search a week later, an off-duty manager brought the tweet to the attention of the police, despite admitting it is “not a credible threat.”

Soon after, anti-terror police raided Mr Chambers’ home, confiscating all electronic devices. Quickly the case was brought to court by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS).

Celebrities spoke out against the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), actor/writer Stephen Fry even offered to pay Paul Chambers’ legal fees. Despite the pressure, Mr Chambers was found guilty, and his life was subsequently ruined – all because of a rather tasteless, perhaps unfunny, yet innocent, simple joke on Twitter.

Thanks to a ridiculous pursuit by the CPS, two-years of legal wrangling ensued, but the case was finally quashed by the High Court in July 2012 – over two-years after the original joke was made.

The ruling that day seemed to set a precedent for future ’offensive electronic communications’. And since then, Twitter has become an abhorrent, exploited source for news – to the police, a seemingly barrel full of foul-mouthed fish, awaiting to be shot.

Poor taste – no matter how derogatory, demeaning, or downright offensive – is not criminal, and should not be treated as such. Yes, it is a social wrong, but without any incitement of a criminal act, it does fall under the ‘free speech’ umbrella and should not be vulnerable to state intervention.

If I went on Twitter today, I could reel off a long list of poor taste jokes relating to the current news headlines, from Jimmy Saville, to April Jones. Consciously, I know this is a social wrong, so will not do it. But if I decided to, I would be treated as a criminal – someone who has ‘broken the law’.

If I tweeted an incitement of hatred, that is a different thing. But merely expressing a remark, however offensive, is not a criminal action. In fact, I am purely exercising my right to free speech, which does include freedom to offend.

Offence is subjective. Some of you may even find this article offensive. And that is why offence should not be criminalised. There is no clear definition on what is criminal, what is right, and what is wrong.

Bad taste jokes, an often awful social demeanour, are offensive by their design. They are not criminal. They are issues which need to be addressed by peers, not police.

Words: Ashley Scrace

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