Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Free speech in sentences

A Dewsbury man found guilty of posting an offensive Facebook message about British soldiers in Afghanistan has been spared jail after magistrates gave him a community service order.

But free speech campaigners believe his prosecution - and that of a Chorley man found guilty of posting offensive online jokes about missing five-year-old Welsh girl April Jones - should never have brought.

As well as a 240-hour community service order, Huddersfield magistrates last week fined 20-year old Azhar Ahmed £300 for sending a “grossly offensive communication.” 

His message, which said “all soldiers should die and go to hell”, was posted after six British soldiers from the Yorkshire Army regiment were killed by militants in Lashkar Gar, Helmand in March. The mother of one of the soldiers reported the message to the police.

District Judge Jane Goodwin told Ahmed: “You posted the message in response to tributes and messages of sympathy. You knew at the time that this was an emotive and sensitive issue. 

“With freedom of speech comes responsibility. On March 8 you failed to live up to that responsibility.”

Ahmed maintained that he was voicing “legitimate concerns” about British military involvement in Afghanistan and that he removed the comments when he realised they were causing distress.

A former soldier offended by Ahmed’s comments, Jim Fox - who served in Northern Ireland in the 1970s - said the Dewsbury man failed to recognise that most soldiers are young, poorly educated and apolitical. But Fox added: “Free speech is important and the courts are no place to argue over Britain’s role in Afghanistan.” 

Ahmed’s sentence came days after 19-year-old Matthew Woods from Chorley was jailed for 12 weeks after admitting making grossly offensive comments on his Facebook about April Jones.

His comments were reported to the police by members of the public and a 50-strong “vigilante mob” descended on his home, Chorley Magistrates Court heard.

Chairman of the Bench Bill Hudson said: “We have listened to the evidence in what can only be described as a disgusting and despicable crime and one the bench finds completely abhorrent.” 

But campaigners said the magistrates in both cases failed to take into account an earlier ruling that the Communications Act 2003 should not be used to punish “the expression of unpopular or unfashionable opinion about serious or trivial matters, banter or humour, even if distasteful to some or painful to those subjected to it.”

This was the view expressed by the Lord Chief Justice in July when he upheld Paul Chambers’ appeal against his conviction for jokingly threatening on Twitter  to blow Robin Hood airport “sky high!” if his planned flight was affected by the weather in January 2010.

Writing on  Index on Censorship’s blog, Padraig Reidy said the law was being used in Woods’ case just in the way Lord Chief Justice had warned against - to diminish his “right to express unpopular, unfashionable and distasteful humour.”

Reidy wrote: “Woods would appear to have been found ‘guilty’ of crimes agains taste and against sentiment. We cannot allow this to continue. No one should be put in prison for making a joke that other people don’t like.”

Josie Appleton, spokesperson for the Manifesto Club, which campaigns against ‘the hyper regulation of everyday life’, said that prosecutions such as these should not be brought because there is no threat of violence.

She said: “ The last Government introduced a series of very vague laws that massively extended criminal offences to include comments on social media sites that are offensive, rude and stupid. The previously critical Conservative Party has retained these laws and we can now expect to see them more widely used, especially if proposed new laws introduce tracking for everyone’s email, Twitter and Facebook accounts.” 

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