Freedom to offend
When a 19-year-old Canterbury man posted a photograph on his Facebook page of a Remembrance Day poppy being burned, accompanied by an obscene comment, it’s reasonable to assume the world was not being introduced to a great new intellect. It’s also likely the young man got an unpleasant surprise when the police showed up at his door within hours to arrest him.
The “poppycock” case, as it has become known, offers yet more evidence of how at sea the authorities are when confronted with the challenges of policing social media, and how heavy-handed enforcement can expose them to justified ridicule. The Canterbury arrest was carried out by Kent police on suspicion of an offence under the Malicious Communications Act. This 1998 legislation, originally enacted to address harassment and poison pen letters, is intended to deal with material deemed “indecent or grossly offensive, or which conveys a threat . . . [where] there is an intent to cause distress or anxiety to the recipient”. To use the legislation to pursue people who post on social networks seems to twist it considerably from its original intention.
Civil liberties groups have complained that, in a number of recent cases, police in the UK appear to have taken it upon themselves to arrest people for publishing material online when it was highly questionable whether any offence had actually taken place. Human rights lawyer John Cooper QC, who has offered to defend the teenager if the case comes to trial, has put it succinctly: “What we have here is a stupid and foolish young man making an obnoxious gesture. But to potentially criminalise him and to arrest him is disproportionate and dangerous to the very fundamental freedom of speech.”
Mr Cooper is right. Quite apart from the not unimportant question of whether busy police officers are using such time wisely, a principle is at stake. If freedom of speech does not include freedom to say stupid, juvenile or grossly offensive things, then it is no freedom at all.