Britain’s crackdown on Web comments sparks free-speech debate
CHORLEY, England — Everyone agrees that his “jokes” making fun of two kidnapped girls crossed the line. Matthew Woods swiftly became an object of contempt after he posted the crude and offensive comments on his Facebook page.
But did he deserve to be locked up for them?
A judge thought so, and ordered the 19-year-old to spend 12 weeks in jail, essentially for overstepping the bounds of good taste. Woods now sits behind bars — and also in the middle of a growing clash in Britain between freedom of expression, societal mores and the digital revolution.
Woods is one of several people whose use of social media has landed them on the wrong side of the law. They’ve been arrested, tried in court or otherwise subjected to public censure for posting distasteful opinions or malicious statements online, remarks that would’ve earned them little more than disapproving looks if they’d said the same thing over a pint in their corner pub.
One man angry about the war in Afghanistan was ordered to perform 240 hours of community service for declaring on Facebook that “all soldiers should die and go to hell.” Police also went knocking on the door of a 17-year-old boy who tweeted an insulting message to Olympic diver Tom Daley, saying that he had let down his dead father by failing to win a gold medal. He was arrested, but released and given a warning.
While deploring such sentiments, civil liberties groups and prosecutors alike have registered alarm over the rash of arrests and investigations, concerned about an erosion of free expression here in one of the world’s oldest — and most raucous — democracies.
“We are seeing a criminalization of speech that wasn’t there before,” said Kirsty Hughes, chief executive of the London-based nonprofit group Index on Censorship. “It’s seriously worrying.”
The source of the controversy is a 2003 communications law that, among other things, makes it a crime to send messages deemed “grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character” through a public electronic network.
Critics note that provision actually comes from an older version of the law from the 1930s and was aimed at protecting telephone operators from abuse. The 2003 act kept that passage, but it was in a world before Facebook, Twitter or other online social networking sites, at a time when the phrase “going viral” hadn’t yet gone, well, viral.
Yet the law continues to govern a completely new media landscape encompassing the Internet and its offshoots, an anachronistic situation that critics say should be urgently addressed but probably won’t be, given the current government’s focus on reviving the British economy.
“The recent spate of arrests shows us that the law is having unintended consequences,” said Damian Tambini, an expert on media policy at the London School of Economics. The communications act needs revision, he said, “but legislative reform will not happen for at least two years.”
Beyond the law, some observers also detect something deeper at work in British society, what Hughes calls “the beginning of a culture of people thinking they have a right not to be offended.”
The trend is evident not just online, they say. Recently a man was sentenced to four months in jail for wearing a T-shirt in public on which he’d written “One less pig” after two policewomen were killed in an ambush in a nearby city. The statute cited was a different one: a breach of public order.
Such punishments can seem shocking to Americans, for whom freedom of speech — even (or especially) odious and hurtful speech — is enshrined in the Bill of Rights. Britain has no written constitution, though it boasts its own long, proud tradition of free expression as embodied in the popular tourist attraction Speakers’ Corner in London’s Hyde Park, where anyone can get on a soapbox and release his or her inner orator.
The Digital Age has complicated matters.
In a world where mass communication is available not just to licensed broadcasters but anyone with an Internet connection, musings that might originally have been intended for private consumption can reach an audience of millions in the blink of an eye. And words that would quickly disappear into thin air when spoken aloud, even in a public place, can remain alive forever and endlessly shared.
“There are issues with new technology, obviously: We’re all publishers now, we’re all citizen journalists and all the rest of it. And things going viral and being retweeted and reposted is a whole set of technological and social challenges,” said Hughes. “But I think we certainly shouldn’t overreact.... If we try to patrol, through law and regulation, every tweet and every Facebook post, we’re shutting down the potential the Web is giving us.”
That hasn’t stopped Britons from complaining to authorities about offensive electronic messages and material, from the trivial to the truly outrageous.
Last year, police were called out to investigate nearly 2,500 such cases, the BBC reported recently. Some police officials have complained that this is not a good use of their time.
The chief prosecutor for England and Wales, Keir Starmer, appears to agree. His office is now consulting police, attorneys and academics to come up with guidelines on what kinds of cases should merit investigation and prosecution under the 2003 law.
One possible marker is whether the messages are actually harassing or threatening, rather than simply distasteful.
“The law prohibits grossly offensive messages, and we’ve got to work within the law as it is,” Starmer told the BBC. But “if there are a lot of prosecutions, it would have a chilling effect on free speech, and I think that’s a very important consideration.”
Matthew Woods had no inkling that his upsetting comments about the two kidnapped young girls would bring both public opprobrium and judicial punishment down on his head in such heavy measure.
In what he said was a drunken state, the unemployed teen sat at his computer in Chorley, an old mining town in northern England, and tapped out tasteless jokes that he’d found on the Web.
“Who in their right mind would abduct a ginger kid?” he wrote about one of the kidnap victims, a redheaded tyke. Other comments posted on his Facebook page included repulsive sexual references.
Angry responses streamed in almost immediately after he pressed the “send” button. Public vitriol escalated to the point that a mob of about 50 people reportedly gathered outside Woods’ house, causing police to take him into custody for his own safety.
His lawyer, David Edwards, said that Woods was suddenly cast as “Public Enemy No. 2,” behind the suspected kidnapper of one of the missing girls. Barely 48 hours later, Woods pleaded guilty in court, hoping for leniency. But the magistrate called Woods’ action a “despicable crime” and handed down the 12-week jail sentence.
“It’s pretty much the maximum that the court guidelines allow. It surprised me no end,” said Edwards.
He agrees that Woods’ comments were appalling. But he noted that the two people who complained to authorities had actively sought out Woods’ Facebook page when they’d heard of the “jokes,” then called police afterward.
“There should be a huge distinction drawn between that and directing the comments personally to anybody,” Edwards said.
Whether Woods would be subject to prosecution under the new guidelines being drawn up by Starmer’s office remains to be seen.
“The threshold for prosecution has to be high,” Starmer told the BBC. “We live in a democracy.... People have the right to be offensive; they have the right to be insulting. And that has to be protected.”