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Freedom Of Speech Should Apply To Sick Internet Trolls Too

by Samuel Horti
16 October 2012 11 Comments

19-year-old Michael Woods was sentenced to jail recently for making sick jokes about missing child April Jones on the internet. Twisted as he might be, should Woods be in prison for exercising his right to freedom of speech?

You may not have heard of Michael Woods. He’s a 19-year-old man who was last week sentenced to 3 months in prison for making offensive comments over Facebook. The comments in question referred to April Jones, the 5-year-old girl who is now, tragically, presumed dead after being kidnapped earlier this month. If you’re a Sickipedia regular then his remarks may not have had you batting an eyelid, but it would take a cold-hearted bastard to argue that Mr Woods’s remarks were anything other than wildly inappropriate (he even managed to drag the memory of Madeleine McCann into the mix). However, it is not the online ramblings of the convicted that should have us worried; it is the fact that he has been convicted at all. This verdict comes as a slap in the face for ‘free speech’: that poorly defined concept that, so we are constantly told, is one of the cornerstones of our nation (although recently it has been forced to lay low in the societal shadows and not make a sound).

The reasons behind the sentencing, said chairman of the bench Bill Hudson, were ‘the seriousness of the offence’ and ‘the public outrage that has been caused’. Mr Hudson concluded that ‘there was no other sentence this court could have passed which conveys to you the abhorrence that many in society feel this crime should receive’. On first glance, Mr Hudson’s words shocked me deeply. Here we have a case in which outside opinions have infiltrated and directly influenced the outcome. I was of the view that our courts of law are supposed to be places of rationality and reasoned debate, and I presumed that they should be impermeable to emotional appeals or to public perception. Of course, I was wrong.

Mr Woods was convicted under the Communications Act of 2003, section 127, which states that it is a crime to make public a ‘message or other matter that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character”. Furthermore, that Act states that those who are offended “need not be the recipients” of the message. This law effectively sticks two fingers up at the European Court of Human Rights, who were bang-on way back in 1967 when they stated that the human right to freedom of expression extended to views “that offend, shock or disturb the state or any sector of the population”. So much for progress.

This verdict comes as a slap in the face for ‘free speech’: that poorly defined concept that, so we are constantly told, is one of the cornerstones of our nation.

The first thing that strikes me about this law is that it is clearly not applied with any consistency. You only have to look to the goldmine that is Frankie Boyle’s twitter account to see that. He recently tweeted that Jimmy Savile did a lot of charity work ‘just to be sure he could shag Madeleine McCann in heaven.’ The man has consistently redefined the boundaries of what comedians can talk about, toying with subject matter ranging from the abduction of Shannon Matthews to Harvey Price’s disability. Thousands of people (including Katie Price herself) have been offended by these jokes, and yet it has never seriously been argued that the great Scot should be bundled into the back of a van and taken off for a stay at Her Majesty’s pleasure. Judging by the punishment handed down to Michael Woods, Mr Boyle can count himself lucky.

At the crux of the issue lies this problem: offence is always taken, not given, and is thus an unsuitably subjective candidate for the basis of any law. Imagine, if you will, that you had an unfortunate incident when you were young that has left you grossly offended by the colour blue. Are we to say that this gives you the right to go around demanding that anyone wearing jeans be immediately carted off to court? And do not think this rather strange situation is not pertinent to the discussion: anyone could be offended by anything and, according to this law, this provides enough ground for a criminal conviction. It’s an impractical idea that is simply incompatible with any free society.

We must realise that our country contains a multitude of people, each with conflicting views that are bound to bang in to each other at some point in time, and if the only solution we can think of for this problem is to increase the burden on our already overstretched prisons then we have ultimately failed. We’d do well, at this time, to remember George Orwell’s warning that ‘threats to freedom of speech, writing and action, though often trivial in isolation, are cumulative in their effect and, unless checked, lead to a general disrespect for the rights of the citizen’. The aftermath of Michael Woods’s case provides the perfect opportunity for some politician or other to come forward and make a long overdue show of support for our freedom of speech: people in the media are doing it, and it’s about time that those in power did too.

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Los Tres 8:49 am, 16-Oct-2012

Couldn't agree more

Gareth 9:40 am, 16-Oct-2012

One of the real problems here is the emerging influence of offence-by-proxy, that tabloid-fuelled sense of indignant outrage about something you were unaware of until the papers brought it to your attention. The voice of the people united in a shrieking cry of disgust at something that neither concerned nor directly affected them.

Shit Pistol 10:14 am, 16-Oct-2012

I find it offensive when people wear hats in-doors. I wouldn't expect them to be given prison sentences... although.. An important subject and well written. Can't help but feel that deep down this is all the Daily Mail's fault.

RipTheMichael 10:38 am, 16-Oct-2012

Totally agree with you, but one thing you omitted to ask is why the gang of people that tried to storm his house haven't been brought to court for public (dis)order offences

RipTheMichael 10:39 am, 16-Oct-2012

Also this magistrate should be removed from office as he has obviously not done his duty properly

Colonel Willowby-Gore St. Johns 10:54 am, 16-Oct-2012

"A free press can, of course, be good or bad, but, most certainly without freedom, the press will never be anything but bad." Albert Camus

Jason 11:00 am, 16-Oct-2012

You're bang on Gareth. The fact that this kid was convicted is a disgrace to the English legal system.

Jimmy James Jameson 12:25 pm, 16-Oct-2012

Should the kid be given a good kicking? Yes. Should the kid receive a jail sentence? No. The Illuminati's behind this... Just another step on the way to Total Control. The reptilian cunts :-/

Thought Beacon 12:50 pm, 16-Oct-2012

Absolutely agree with you here. Thought Beacon fully endorses this, we shall share this link to our twitter feed through the portal. Feel free to exercise you right to free speech here also.

Markxist 2:58 pm, 16-Oct-2012

As someone who has worked in prisons it beggars belief that someone somewhere thought this was the right punishment to give an idiot making an off colour remark online. It smacks of 'being made an example of' the very worst kind of kneejerk ill thought out punishment. If anything what Woods and all the other trollish idiots need is a suspended sentence, probation and a mandatory people skills programme not just for online comms but face to face ones too as that is clearly where the underlying issue is. What Woods did may have been crass, stupid and very wrong, but it is a world away from what Sarah Rumbelow did online against the actress Rosie Marcel who was also sentenced to a prison term this week.

Dan The Man 12:08 pm, 17-Dec-2012

There now appear to be more exceptions being made to freedom of speech in our country. Celebrities seem to be a special case e.g. the arsehole who took the piss out of Muamba got sent to prison which was outrageous. Was it a racist statement? Yes of course. Should that get a prison sentence? No fucking way. Meanwhile violent criminals get bound over or fined. It's ridiculous. Sticks and stones....

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