Huge impact? Hardly.

Yesterday a 21-year-old Somali woman from London was given a community service order for posting an offensive tweet about the soldier Lee Rigby after his stabbing last month (but before the full facts about the attack became known), to the effect that anyone who would wear a Help for Heroes T-shirt deserves to be beheaded (she claimed this was a comment on the design of the T-shirt). She admitted “sending a malicious electronic message” and ordered to complete 250 hours of unpaid work by Hendon magistrates, who warned her that she could have been imprisoned and that her words “had a huge impact and clearly caused offence and distress”. The “offence and distress” manifested itself in threats to rape her and kill her by burning her house down, and she was arrested after going to the police to report this.

The reasoning behind giving her any sentence at all is quite ludicrous. The tweet could not have had a “huge impact”; although reports say she had 600 followers (until she deleted her Twitter and Facebook accounts shortly afterwards), it is quite likely that the “outrage” was worked up by some busybody or some EDL type who retweeted her original tweet to a bunch of his friends, and the show of “offence” was from them. Even if it was just ordinary members of the public, a few dozen people offended does not constitute a general outrage. Most people on the Internet never heard of it. I did not, until I read these reports this morning, and I did not see anyone discussing it. On this as with many similar previous cases, judges have confused a few dozen (or even few hundred) angry people on Twitter, or press reporting, with public outrage. In each case, the majority of people who got “outraged” would not have seen the original post unless someone else showed it to them, an act which nobody ever seems to be held accountable for. The people who replied would likely have included several non-followers, and therefore have been public (possibly including the messages threatening to rape the original poster); it is also significant that it was none of these people who brought the comment to the police’s attention.

An image of a tweet by Frankie Boyle: "A small victory for comedy. A big victory for comedy would be his plane home getting blown up."

Threats to rape are quite common whenever a woman expresses an opinion that offends some men. A threat (public or private) to rape is greatly more offensive and threatening than a joke about a dead man (unless the man is someone you know), so I hope (although I accept it’s highly unlikely, as the police took the easy option and charged the victim) that the police are going after who posted these threats. Perhaps, however, a public threat to rape a woman isn’t that offensive when it’s a Muslim who has said something nasty about one of “Our Boys”, but it shows that there is no consistency in what is and what is not tolerated in public speech. A few years ago I complained to the BBC when a comedian, in a pre-recorded show, made a joke about the possibility of a named famous individual being raped in prison, and was told that they had to accommodate all tastes in comedy. Perhaps I should have gone to the police (although I’m sure there would have been policemen watching), and as it was distributed over iPlayer, it surely constitutes an electronic message (much as slander becomes libel when it is printed).

This follows a trend of the law being used to punish people for exposing adults to sentiments that, if expressed to a child in the playground, the latter would be told to “just ignore it”. These include, for example, an incident where a football fan made a joke on video about the Munich air crash in 1958, in which several Manchester United players were killed. The idea that Manchester United fans now could be seriously offended by jokes about players that died before they (or in some cases their parents) were born is ridiculous, and if true, says more about the character of football than about the seriousness of this “offence”. It’s one thing to charge someone with “malicious communication” for maliciously posting on a memorial page for someone who died of cancer, set up by their friends; it’s quite another when they joke about famous people who died more than 50 years ago.

Picture of a Muslim woman in a black hijab on a train, with masked men with "English Defence League" badges on their clothes

Quite apart from the gross infringement of freedom of speech that these laws represent, and the lily-livered approach to public order, there is a huge amount of inconsistency: the things that are shouted at demonstrations, particularly by the EDL as a matter of course, and said in theatres or on TV far outweigh the offence in a tweet by one little-known student. Meanwhile, in an incident which many Muslims remember very well, a white middle-class man who made an explicit threat to blow up an airport was convicted of sending a malicious electronic message, but his conviction was quashed last year; the contrast is obvious and quite sickening. If an offensive statement is made with a clear view to provoking a disturbance or when someone deliberately harasses a grieving family with offensive remarks about their recently deceased relative, there are grounds for prosecution or at least legal action to make sure they desist. A tasteless remark about a news event that annoys a few dozen people on the internet that heard it second-hand should not constitute grounds for prosecution, let alone imprisonment. It is hugely disproportionate, and more in line with third-world countries where “insulting the military” and other such acts are criminalised than with most developed countries in the so-called free world.

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