In the US, we look at free speech as one of our inalienable rights. Whatever we say (minus a few key exceptions) is protected, no matter how offensive it may be. As danah boyd wrote recently over at the Social Media Collective Research Blog, ”content that depicts many things that are deemed offensive – including grotesque imagery, obscene pornography, and extreme violence – is often protected by free speech, even if public display of it is limited.”
But here in the UK, that’s not the case. Over the past few months, people have gone to jail for violating Section 127 of the Communications Act, which penalizes people for disseminating public electronic communications which are “grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character”. On the surface, this seems similar to the US exception for ‘hate speech’, but in practice, it’s quite different.
My first exposure to this was earlier this year when 21 year old Liam Stacey published a schadenfreude-tinged tweet after footballer Fabrice Muamba collapsed during a game. When criticized, Stacey let loose with a torrent of racist and offensive commentary and was imprisoned for 56 days for his remarks.
This past week, 20 year old Matthew Wood was arrested after posting inappropriate jokes on Facebook about the disappearance of April Jones, a young Welsh girl. He will be serving 3 months in jail for making comments such as “Who in their right mind would abduct a ginger child?”, as well as more sexually tinged comments (apparently— the comments weren’t published by any news outlet).
While Stacey and Wood’s comments were clearly inappropriate and incredibly distasteful, they are not the exception to the rule. The internet is filled with people/morons making offensive statements, and it’s quite clear to me that the reason these men were singled out is because they made comments about high-profile incidents. They said the wrong thing at the wrong time, and the British public decided that they should be punished, bringing their comments to the attention of the authorities.
Clearly, this is problematic for a multitude of reasons. First of all, there is a reason that laws exist and that vigilantism is not an acceptable form of justice. The court of public opinion may exist, but that doesn’t mean that it should actually influence legal decisions. Yes, these men should have to deal with the repercussions of their actions, but social rejection/ostracism and incarceration are two different things.
Secondly, there is the incredibly thorny issue of who decides whether something is ‘offensive’ or not. Granted, it’s not very nice (vile, even!) to say something shitty about an abducted child or an ill football player, but subjective definitions are an incredibly slippery slope. If all it takes is a vocal minority to kick up a big stink in order to categorize something as ‘offensive’ or ‘indecent’, then that is incredibly worrying. It’s not that I’m concerned about people being hauled off to jail in big numbers for making tasteless jokes (although that did happen), but that the fear of prosecution will result in self-censorship and the alteration of discourse. What happens if a fundamentalist group decides that frank discussions of homosexuality, or sexual behavior, or abortion, or religion or any other number of touchy topics are ‘grossly offensive’ or ‘indecent’?
People were up in arms about what happened to Pussy Riot,
but I don’t see a huge difference between what happened to them and what happened to Matthew Wood and Liam Stacey (Update: 2 of the Pussy Riot members are being sent to gulags, so I entirely retract this). Are racist and offensive comments the same as political speech? Not in this case, no. However, all of the speech acts in question were essentially opinions considered to be offensive by those in power. I am not defending Wood and Stacey’s comments— they were disgusting, even if made in jest. But the fact remains that both Russian and UK authorities put people in jail because of things that they said. That’s not good company for the UK to be in (This is still true, even though the UK and Russia are clearly on different planes).
Wood has been characterized by the UK media as a ‘troll’, which is interesting. I don’t know if Wood was actually trolling (as in, self-defining as a troll and doing it for the lulz) or if the UK media just defines any asshole on the internet as a troll. However, whether the label was intentional or not, the outcome would have been the same. The type of “cultural digestion” performed by trolls (see Whitney Phillips for this) is arguably in quite a bit of danger in the UK if things continue in this vein (whether that’s a good or a bad thing is another issue entirely).
Section 127 of the Communications Act is frightening to me. If I have to deal with jerks saying offensive things in exchange for a society that protects truly open discourse, so be it. There is a difference between protecting individuals from harmful speech and being thin-skinned, and thus far it seems that this law falls on the wrong side of that divide.