October 09, 2012 | Peter Bradwell

Don't make me laugh

Yesterday Matthew Woods was given 12 weeks in a youth offenders institution for posting jokes about the missing 5 year old girl April Jones (see Padraig Reidy's write up of this yesterday on the Index on Censorship blog). Today Azhar Ahmed was given a community order for posting some very stupid and offensive comments about soliders. 

Woods' jokes were sick. Ahmed's comments were offensive. But are they really things that should be landing a person in jail?

It's sometimes said that the Internet is an unregulated wild west where anything goes. It's hard to maintain that position now. People are going to jail for telling bad jokes on the Internet. That tends to not happen to people telling bad jokes in the pub. Or on television. And I'm not saying that people in the pub or on television should be going to jail.

Section 127 (1) of the Communications Act 2003 is aimed at 'public communications networks'. And the aim it has taken is at a very broadly drawn target. What's is as alarming is that the two cases above are just the latest examples of posts on social media resulting in prosecution. The most famous was perhaps the case of Paul Chambers and the 'Twitter Joke' trial.

The consequences go further than potentially undermining the careers of famous comedians who trade on offensiveness. It reduces the available ground for the free expression of opinion and perspective for everyone.

In an environment where the law tries to rigorously enforce what some people think is offensive, the ultimate consequence is that it is harder for everyone to challenge ideas or beliefs they don't like. It is worth remembering that being offended is not a reaction that is exclusive to people you agree with. Being grossly offensive is not difficult. I'd be amazed if people supporting the prosecution of Woods or Ahmed had not managed it at some stage.

This is different from saying Woods or Ahmed were not offensive.  Of course it was. They were awful, awful things to say. They shouldn't have said them.

The CPS is currently looking again at the section 127, running a series of roundtables and then, possibly, a public consultation. We'll be producing some recommedations on how to create a better and more liberal environment for freedom of expression. Funnily enough, the CPS' roundtables started this week, so they have some very fresh examples to consider. In the meantime, it's worth reading Professor Lilian Edwards' write-up of what she thinks the issue is

Comments (6)

  1. Neil Burrows:
    Oct 09, 2012 at 04:49 PM

    in the Imperial War Museum is a T-Shirt on the wall...

    "Fuck War!"

    With the following comment:

    "Which word is more offensive?"

  2. Ingrid Koehler:
    Oct 09, 2012 at 06:49 PM

    I didn't see what Woods wrote, but there's no doubt I would have found his statements 'grossly offensive'. I did see at least some of Ahmed wrote and I found those statements to be at least 'somewhat offensive'. Neither one of them should have been prosecuted. But even in these two cases, one could quibble over whether they were grossly offensive or not. I remember as a child repeating jokes about Christa Mcauliffe, the teacher who died in the Challenger space shuttle disaster. They were grossly offensive. I find people saying that the Israeli secret service blew up the Twin Towers grossly offensive. I even find the ubiquity of mayonnaise in British sandwiches grossly offensive.

    But most offensive of all is that free speech could be curtailed over the delicate sensibilities of others.

  3. Rhisiart Gwilym:
    Oct 09, 2012 at 09:06 PM

    Jngrid, would you find it offensive if I said that USAmericans were behind the 9/11 atrocities, and that some Israelis at least -- the ones celebrating so obviously on the edge of NYC as they watched the Towers fall -- were clearly in the know about the real conspiracy (that's the home-grown false-flag operation, not the damn'fool '19 Arabs with boxcutters directed from a cave in Afghanistan' cartoon-story-for-suckers nonsense)?

    The hard, sane copious evidence that 9/11 was a false-flag operation is by now much too persuasive to be denied by anyone prepared to look at if with a genuinely open mind. You can get particularly convincing hard evidence from the organisation of which I'm a member: Architects and Engineers For 9/11 Truth. And there are many others. Take a serious, open-minded look around the non-zany, sober, weighty websites. You'll soon get the sense of which are which. The evidence on the sober ones is simply beyond denial, if you're prepared to be intellectually honest and keep upset emotions under control.

    If you're offended by simple, factual truths, then you have a bit of a problem.

    I find the recent prosecutions for saying stupid, offensive things quite disturbing. The level of snooping, and of censorship involved is looking worrying for anyone who cares about real freedom of speech -- which means having the basic right to say, amongst all the other things, any damn'fool or grossly offensive thing that you choose, if it means anything -- this creep up of snooping and following censorship leads eventually to be prevented from saying the sort of sober, urgently necessary truths such my paragraphs above. And then bastards like the 9/11 real perpetrators, of the crooks and killers whom Julian Assange and Wikileaks outed, can get away with much more, and much worse, even than they do now.

    There's no satisfactory dividing line between what is and what isn't acceptable. It never works. It always begins to slither upwards to take ou more and more right to free expression. In the end, the only safe rule has to be that all speech, all expression of opinions and ideas, even the nastiest and most offensive, has to be a sacred freedom.

    Drawing a

  4. WIll Bickerstaff:
    Oct 10, 2012 at 06:31 AM

    No, I disagree, grossly offensive behaviour is unacceptable and should be punished, however I think the sentence is probably disproportionate when you consider the same bench only issued a £100 fine to a motorist who shouted You f****** black c*** to someone.

    And don't confuse being entitled to an opinion with being entitled to have that opinion heard, considered or taken seriously:

    Typically this sort of behaviour is dealt with by the law (sexism, racism), and the internet should not be any different. Trolls cause real psychological harm to people so should be dealt with appropriately. Don't see how this undermines anyones career, no comedian whould get away with calling someone a f****** black c*** anymore than any man on the street.

  5. Ingrid Koehler:
    Oct 11, 2012 at 12:18 PM

    Yes, Rhysiart Gwilym, I do find what you're saying somewhat offensive. But it's so often trotted out, that it no longer hits the 'grossly offensive' level. I do find it offensive that you think that I have a problem because I fail to bite the Troofer line or that I'm incapable of overcoming my emotion (I hope that's not a gender based slur) to look at evidence. I also find it slightly offensive that you couldn't be bothered to type my name correctly. But on all of these, I suspect I'll get over it. We won't get over it if such speech were disallowed.

  6. Robert Hudson:
    Oct 24, 2012 at 05:54 PM

    Ingrid- the 'Troofer line' as you childishly call it happens to be documented fact. I do think you have a problem with looking at the evidence but you have every right to ignore the obvious. You still have the right to be wrong. If my words are offensive to you then that's just the way it is.