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.