It feels appropriate on the first anniversary of the Charlie Hebdo attack to consider the state of free speech in the UK. Not, obviously, the state of free speech on university campuses, where the inestimable Flying Rodent makes a suggestion as to how those so outraged by "prissy students" and their trigger warnings can make clear their angst, but instead elsewhere.
We'll start with the case of Pastor James McConnell, cleared this week of "causing a grossly offensive message to be sent by means of a public electronic communications network". The born again evangelical, in a sermon heard by 2,000 people in his "Tabernacle" in Belfast and by 700 others online, variously declared that "Today we see powerful evidence that more and more Muslims are putting the Koran's hatred of Christians and Jews alike into practice"; that "people say there are good Muslims in Britain. That may be so, but I don't trust them"; called Enoch Powell a "prophet" and proclaimed him to be "right"; and in a final flourish said "Today a new evil has arisen. There are cells of Muslims right throughout Britain ... Islam is heathen, Islam is satanic, Islam is a doctrine spawned in hell."
Not for a moment was Pastor McConnell suggesting Muslims themselves were heathens or worse, oh heavens no. On the contrary, he loves every hair on their little heads. He might not so much as trust a "good" Muslim, but it's their religion he detests, not them personally. You might imagine that just as Pastor McConnell's identity as an individual is presumably all but inseparable from his faith, he would understand that many Muslims feel the same way. You might think he'd see the irony of describing a belief system that shares a fair amount with his own as "satanic" and "spawned in hell", not least when he's the one accusing them of hatred. Then again, the evangelical brand of Protestantism in Northern Ireland has not generally been noted for its nuance or for taking much notice of that old verse about motes and beams.
The McConnell case is also notable for how it dragged in then first minister Peter Robinson, who ended up apologising outside Belfast's Islamic Centre for defending a little too profusely a preacher whose congregation he occasionally attended. Various other figures from the DUP, as well as the even more conservative Traditional Ulster Voice also spoke up for McConnell, and have been critical of the director of public prosecutions for bringing the case.
Certainly, it's difficult to see how the PPS came to the conclusion there was a realistic chance of conviction, in spite of McConnell declining to accept an "informed warning" instead. Not only was there political backing at the highest level for McConnell, a judge or jury are always liable to err on the side of caution and give the benefit of the doubt to an established preacher, in contrast say to a ranter sermonising from a street corner. When you then further consider the history of Northern Ireland, where Dr No himself eventually rose to be first minister, expecting a relatively mild by those standards denunciation of Islam to be declared "grossly offensive", as necessary under the Communications Act, was at best wishful thinking.
Moreover, McConnell's acquittal was the right decision. His rhetoric would be offensive to many Muslims, but it was not the sort of speech that should ever be proscribed, falling well short of inciting hatred, if still wholly intolerant, ignorant and hypocritical. Far more interesting were the judge's remarks on clearing McConnell, especially in the context of other cases brought under the Communications Act. "I find myself in agreement with Lord Justice Laws in the “Chambers” case when he said that the courts need to be very careful not to criminalise speech which, however contemptible, is no more than offensive. It is not the task of the criminal law to censor offensive utterances," Judge McNally found. Also worth relating is McNally's pointed concluding paragraph from his ruling:
Finally, having heard a great deal about Pastor McConnell’s beliefs over the course of this trial I think it appropriate to leave the last word with the Islamic scholar and poet Rumi who said:
“Silence is the language of God, all else is poor translation.”
Which brings us to the case of Muhammad Mujahid Islam, or as he's otherwise known, Craig Wallace. For reasons which don't seem to have been expanded on, he took an especial disliking to Conservative MP Charlotte Leslie, taking to err, the UK Truth Movement's Facebook page in the aftermath of the Syria vote to make his feelings known. Choice selections from his postings are, all sic, "im going to smash her windows then drop a bomb on her hoyse ... YOU DIRTY FUCKING PIG SHAGGING SLUT by the way love your also fucking hideous", and "im going to find her and show herwat it is like to murder innocents dirty fucking pidg shagging whore".
Quite what Leslie did or didn't do to upset him isn't clear, not least as far from being his MP, Leslie's constituency is Bristol North West, while Wallace lives in err, Willesden. Wallace it appears is a whole mess of contradictions: apart from taking on the most literal of alter egos a Muslim convert possibly could, when not directing abuse at an MP on the profile page of a group of conspiracy theorists, he was "protesting" outside Willesden Green tube station with a placard that read "I am Muslim ... I am labelled a terrorist ... Do you trust me enough for a hug?"
Oddly, unlike McConnell, Wallace didn't find any friends in high places to speak up for him, and was sentenced to eight weeks in prison after pleading guilty to sending a malicious communication. While it's unarguable that Wallace's posts were clearly offensive, there are two points that can be made. First, were they were grossly offensive, or were they menacing, as the Communications Act also proscribes? Unlike say, in the Chambers case, where it was apparent that his tweet was meant sarcastically, Wallace's posts are not. At the same time, would anyone feel genuinely threatened by them? I'll admit to being rather blasé about what people say online due to the sites I frequented back in the day, but wouldn't most dismiss such talk as the kind of "online tough guy" routine often ridiculed? That he didn't direct the comments at Leslie through her online profiles, writing them elsewhere, ought to have been taken into account. Additionally, one person's definition of grossly offensive is always going to be different to another's, to the point where it almost seems to have left deliberately nebulous in the legislation. Wallace's comments were so over-the-top they veer into "chinny reckon" territory, more absurd and self-defeating than offensive or menacing.
The law in this instance doesn't consider such nuances, and it probably wouldn't have been worth Wallace's legal representatives trying to argue that essentially the law is an ass, as Chambers did, while also making mitigating arguments. One ought to have been that parliamentary votes on going to war are always going to stir passions, and not everyone is going to put their point across as an MP would in the chamber. At a hearing prior to sentencing the judge said "What’s absolutely clear is that your language and expressions about this MP ... went beyond any sort of legitimate comment or protest on an extremely serious issue", and yet, while it's rather fell out of fashion now, swear blogging did most certainly used to be a thing. Is there no place whatsoever for over-the-top diatribes, when while the point itself might be sincere, no harm whatsoever is truly meant to the target? Are we not judging the online world, and individuals such as Wallace differently to the way we do certain comedians, or say pastors?
Then there's the sentence itself. What does a further 8 weeks in prison for Wallace, who had only been released a couple of months earlier from a five-year stretch for attempted robbery, during which he converted, possibly serve him, wider society or the taxpayer? One might have thought prison would be the worst possible place for him. Would not instances like this where the "trolling" is not concerted and the target themselves not personally aware be better dealt with by a caution or alternatively a visit by the police, making clear they're aware and that any further abuse will result in prosecution?
Admittedly, all these are judgements made knowing that Wallace didn't have any real intention of carrying out what were still threats, however unlikely. Others have made similarly dubious warnings, and then gone on to act them out. If legislation such as the Communications Act is to remain statute though, and if anything might be added to considering the on-going outcry over trolling, should there not be guidance for judges making clear their room for discretion, and for taking into consideration the specifics of such cases? While it would be lovely to assume they do already, cases like those such as Wallace's, previous ones and likely others not reported nationally more than suggest the free speech ramifications of section 127 of the communications act should be considered again. Not everyone can rely on celebrities or politicians to defend their stupidity.
Labels: Charlie Hebdo, civil liberties, Communications Act, Craig Wallace, freedom of speech, James McConnell, social networking websites