Sunday, June 26 2016

Who decides what constitutes offensive speech?

The Independent Voices blog yesterday published an article by the Independent’s religious affairs correspondent, Jerome Taylor, in which he wrote of the absurdity of the sentencing of teenager Azhar Ahmed for a ‘grossly offensive’ message which he posted on Facebook, and the wider debate on criminalising free speech.

From the article:

“Another day, another example of how our police and judiciary are criminalising nastiness. Today a young Muslim man who is angry at the UK's involvement in the ongoing Afghanistan conflict was sentenced for posting angry comments on Facebook stating that British soldiers “should die and go to hell”. Not exactly the nicest of sentiments, but is it really something we should be criminally prosecuting through the courts?

“Azhar Ahmed, from Dewsbury, Yorkshire, escaped jail partially because he quickly took down his unpleasant posting and tried to apologise to those he offended. But he will still have to carry out 240 hours community service after he was convicted under section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 for making “grossly offensive comments”.

“Of course free speech isn't wholly free. That's why we have laws banning incitement to violence or encouraging hatred based solely on something a victim cannot change such as their religion, disability or sexual preference.

“But in recent years we have increasingly begun to criminalise the offensive, a precedent that should be deeply worrying for anyone who cares about the importance of free speech. It's problematic because offence…is inherently subjective.

“It's worth taking a look at exactly what Ahmad said to earn his conviction. Two days after six British soldiers were killed by an improvised explosive device in March he wrote on Facebook:

“People gassin [venting off] about the deaths of soldiers! What about the innocent familys who have been brutally killed.. The women who have been raped.. The children who have been sliced up..! Your enemy’s were the Taliban not innocent harmless familys. All soldiers should DIE & go to HELL! THE LOWLIFE F*****N SCUM! gotta problem go cry at your soliders grave & wish him hell because that where he is going.”

“It's neither pleasant, nor eloquent. But criminal? There are plenty of people up and down the country – Muslim and non-Muslim alike – who are deeply uncomfortable about Britain's foreign policy and its military operations in predominantly Islamic countries. They have a right to be heard and speak out. We might not like what they have to say – or even how they say it – but we shouldn't be shutting them down.

Taylor then goes on to elaborate on the increasingly ‘sacrosanct’ nature of our armed forces, arguing that “we are sensitive to criticism of “our boys”, especially if those attacks come from British Muslims.

“The sad fact it that whilst trying to defend Britain from the genuine threat of violent Islamism, British personnel have killed and maimed innocent Muslims. When the rights and wrongs of our wars are debated the conversation is inevitably emotional. People say things in the heat of the moment that are unpleasant, even offensive. But should it be criminal?”

Taylor’s point on the subjectivity of offensiveness is something we have touched on before and it would appear from action taken against others found guilty of ‘grossly offensive’ communications that the degree to which ‘intolerable’ speech is punishable has been applied inconsistently and arbitrarily. Only last week an English Defence League supporter, Kenneth Holden, was sentenced for two charges of ‘sending an offensive message by a public communication network’. The messages concerned were Facebook posts in which Holden stated that he had “got a pipe bomb just 4 Ocean Road” - an area of South Shields known for its curry houses, and added, “GIVE ME A GUN AN AL DO YOU ALL OSLO STYLE”.

Unlike Ahmed who was fined and ordered to do 240 hours of community service, Holden received only a twelve month community order sentence- a sentence served in the community rather than in prison that can carry various requirements depending on the severity of the crime. Holden’s sentence specifically only entails the supervision of the probation service so that “his attitudes towards Muslims could be looked at”. Despite the arguably parity in the crimes committed by Holden and Ahmed, Holden’s sentence is arguably far more lenient than that handed to Ahmed.

In other cases, no action has been taken at all by the police against people who have posted not only ‘offensive’ or ‘menacing’ but arguable racist material online.

The judge sentencing Ahmed told him that "With freedom of speech comes responsibility.” It would appear from the examples above that some are held to be more ‘responsible’ for their free speech than others.

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