The UK Judges Blowing Free Speech Sky High

OriginalGreasySpoon, 3rd August 2012

After a two-and-a-half year struggle to clear his name, 26-year-old Paul Chambers has had his conviction overturned. Charged for sending a message of a ‘menacing character’ under the Communications Act of 2003, Chamber’s crime was rather trivial. After being caused a personal inconvenience by Robin Hood airport in Nottingham, he tweeted ‘You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!!’. What is not trivial however, is the fall out of this case.

It’s glaringly obvious that the tweet was a joke. Terrorists don’t generally announce their plan with a week-and-a-half warning, especially on Twitter. Whether or not the joke was funny or not is an irrelevance; the basic fact is that a man was arrested and sent to trial for making a joke. There are innumerous references to Eastern Europe that can, and have, been made, such as, for example Czech writer Milan Kundera’s novel The Joke (1967).

While comparisons between this and modern Britain would be a bit hysterical, the fact that this can happen shows how illiberal society has become. Jokes made in regimes which are opposed to liberty and free speech often react with state force under justifications of being a threat to the state and public order. Any society that professes to believe in free speech should not lock up a man who makes a joke in poor taste; yet that is exactly what as happened.

Thanks to a high-profile campaign of celebrities such a Stephen Frye, Chambers the menacing tweeter had his conviction overturned. However, while it is always good to see celebrities defending freedom of speech, the same names that defended Chambers remain conspicuously absent from the case of Welsh student Liam Stacey.

Liam Stacey was also convicted of posting a tweet deemed unacceptable by the state, which sentenced him to 56 weeks in prison. After footballer Fabrice Muamba collapsed midway through a football match earlier in the year, Stacey made a pretty nasty joke about him followed by a string of racist taunts. As abhorrent as Stacey’s tweets were, they should be no grounds for arrest. The posting of unpleasant words online should be no business of the state. Free speech is only free when everyone’s right to it is defended, even if what they have to say is not very nice.

The whole idea of convicting people for posting jokes online, be they unfunny, unpleasant, or otherwise, seems to most people ridiculous. Only some detached from society could think that Twitter jokes constitute a terror threat. So, of course, it is no surprise that a judge made this decision. In a time when the public are not trusted to make decisions for and among themselves, and expert technocrats are delegated the role of choosing for them, this case highlights the importance of juries. A trial by your peers allows for a sample of general society to decide if someone’s actions are worthy punishment or not. Surely a sample of the population – more than an unelected judge- would be able to see both cases in contexts; someone posting foolish things online.


One thought on “The UK Judges Blowing Free Speech Sky High

  1. This is really a reply to your plastic bags article in spiked. You say: “little more than a thinly veiled attack on the consumption and alleged littering habits of the masses” Not quite, I think. The people who campaign aainst plastic bags are, essentially, wowsers, a rather useful Australian word i have come across, meaning people whose sole pleasure in life is telling other people what to do and, where possible, forcing them into the ways of righteousness by ensuring that everything undesirable is illegal and everything desirable is compulsory. There’s a lot of it about and I think you’ll find life makes a lot more sense if you treat it as a meme.

    I find used plastic bags useful for sorting bottles into the correct colours for the bottle bank; i couldn’t recycle without them.

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