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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