This has been a miserable week for free speech in the UK. Two people have been jailed for things they wrote, with a third fined and ordered to carry out community service.
In March of this year, Azhar Ahmed of Yorkshire wrote on his Facebook page that he hoped soldiers would burn in hell. A sentiment offensive in its context perhaps, with several soldiers from a local regiment having been killed in Afghanistan that week. On Tuesday he was sentenced to 240 hours community service and fined £300.
Ahmed got off lightly in comparison to Matthew Woods, who made distasteful jokes about missing April Jones and Madeleine McCann.Woods will serve 12 weeks in jail.
Barry Thew, meanwhile, faces a total of eight months in prisonafter he was arrested and convicted for wearing T-shirt he had daubed with slogans apparently celebrating the shooting of PCs Fiona Bone and Nicola Hughes (I say apparently, as Thew’s defence claimed he was coincidentally wearing the shirt at the time of the killing of the officers. He is reported to have had a long-standing grudge against the police, who he blamed for the death of his teenage son).
What links these three stories is not just the element of “speech crime”. There is, within all three, a sense of offence against public opinion, and public morality itself. Woods is condemned for joking crassly at a time when the nation’s eyes were turned to the search for the missing schoolgirl in Machynlleth.
In a similar case earlier this year, Welsh student Liam Stacey was convicted for comments about footballer Fabrice Muamba after he collapsed on the pitch. The judge in Stacey’s case made it clear that Stacey’s crime was, in part, to be out of step with public opinion, stating: “Not just the footballer’s family, not just the footballing world, but the whole world were literally praying for Muamba’s life. Your comments aggravated this situation.
“I have no choice but to impose an immediate custodial sentence to reflect the public outrage at what you have done.”
People such as Stacey, Woods or Thew are not exactly Existentialist anti-heroes, but nonetheless they’re being punished not just for saying, writing, or wearing offensive things, but for not feeling the correct thing. Those who spit in the wave of sentiment must not be excused or ignored.
We seem to have entered an age where deference is demanded of all: deference to those in uniform, and a deference to the idea of national public opinion.
Much in the way crime of blasphemy has been reconfigured as “religious offence”, censorship has taken on a new meaning and a new purpose; in the past, it was those who directly challenged the elite who found themselves silenced. Now, it seems, we must keep our mouths shut for fear of offending some nebulous, transient, yet powerful public feeling. And the law observes and enforces this. But strong feelings rarely make for good judgment. It’s time we all took a deep breath and a step back.