Last week a man was arrested in the UK for posting an image of a burning paper poppy to Facebook, in just the latest incident of what appears to be a growing crackdown on free speech and internet freedoms in the UK. Figures obtained by the Associated Press through a freedom of information request show a steady rise in prosecutions for electronic communications deemed “grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character”. There were 1,263 prosecutions in 2009, rising to 1,843 in 2011.
Convinctions rose from 873 in 2009 to 1,286 last year. Lawyers and activist groups – such Index on Censorship and Reform Section 5 – say the UK has serious problem trying to regulate 21st century communications with laws made during the 20th century, while the director of public prosecutions, Keir Starmer QC, says he’ll launch a public consultation discussing guidelines on how to deal with abusive comments on social media sites.
Below is a quick round-up of all the arrests that have been made over offensive online comments in the UK in 2012. Given the quoted stats above, the actual number of arrests is probably higher, but we can only mention the ones that have made headlines (if you think we’ve missed something, let us know in the comments). Obviously no one wants to defend offensive, racist or homophobic messages. All of the people below deserve to be ridiculed and in some cases reviled. But they shouldn’t be silenced by the state. There’s no point in defending free speech unless you apply it to everyone, regardless of whether or not you find what they say offensive, or not.
UK crackdown on internet freedoms: Arrests made in 2012
Linford House – 19 year-old Linford House from Kent was arrested under the Malicious Communications act for posting a picture of a burning poppy on Facebook, allegedly with the comment ‘How about that you squadey ***s’. House was arrested on November 12 and spent at least two nights behind bars. I could not find any information on whether he’s being prosecuted.
Daniel Thomas – Back in July 28 year old footballer Daniel Thomas was arrested for a making homophobic comment about UK Olympic divers Tom Daley and Peter Waterfield. Thomas, who said the comments were a prank played on him by friends, was suspensed from his football club but escaped prosecution.
Reece Messer – In August 17-year old Reece Messer was arrested for tweeting that Tom Daley had “let his father down” during the Olympics (Daley’s father is deceased). Messer, whose father says suffers from behaviour problems, was not prosecuted.
Liam Stacey – Liam Stacey made a series of racist tweets in March against professional footballer Fabrice Muamba, moments after he had collapsed on pitch from a heart attack. Stacey was arrested and charged with breaching section 4A of the Public Order Act 1986. He spent 56 days in jail.
Joshua Cryer – In March 21 year-old student Joshua Cryer was sentenced to 240 hours of community service for sending racist tweets to footballer Stan Collymore. Cryer was found to be in breach of section 127 of the Communications Act.
Matthew Woods – 19-year old Matthew Woods was jailed for three months in October for posting jokes about missing child April Jones on Twitter. One of the jokes read “Who in their right mind would abduct a ginger kid?”
Azhar Ahmed – In March 20-year old Azhar Ahmed made a Facebook post demanding justice for dead Afghani civilians and saying all British soldiers should “die & go to hell”. Ahmed apologised and deleted the message after receiving criticism over Facebook. But he was later arrested and, last month, was sentenced to 240 hours of community service.
Neil Swinburne – Last month 22 year-old Neil Swinburne was arrested for setting up a Facebook page praising the murderer of police officers Fiona Bone and Nicola Hughes. If found guilty under the Communications Act 2003, Swinburne faces a six month jail sentence.