Locked up for making bad jokes online

On the ‘long walk to freedom’, the UK appears to be doing a U-turn. Two cases reported in the past couple of days are a reminder that Brits can be locked up for saying the wrong thing online.

The Daily Star reports the case of a man arrested and held for eight hours for making two jokes about the then seriously ill Nelson Mandela. Neil Phillips from Staffordshire was arrested after a complaint to the police by a local councillor. He was eventually freed and has not been prosecuted for the comments due to ‘lack of evidence’. Nonetheless, the idea that merely making a joke online should require the attention of the local constabulary should be shocking. The fact that the story isn’t really that surprising is a measure of how much free speech has been called into question in recent years.

Another case involves social-media comments made after the recent accident in Glasgow, in which a police helicopter lost power and crashed into a busy bar, The Clutha. A 16-year-old boy has been arrested and two other people have been reported to the police for their comments about the crash. According to The Sunday Times: ‘Frank Mulholland, the lord advocate, has issued an operating instruction telling procurators there is to be a “strong presumption in favour of criminal proceedings” where it appears offences were motivated by “a hateful reaction to the events at the Clutha bar”.’

The Scottish crackdown seems to come under the 2012 Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Act, a thoroughly draconian law that provides for imprisonment for up to five years simply for saying something the authorities decide is ‘sectarian’ - or even the mere singing of popular folk songs by football fans. While working-class football fans, much maligned by the political and chattering classes, have been the initial target of the law, it’s no surprise that once the authorities were given a draconian new power, they have enthusiastically gone looking for other people to apply it to.

Social media represent an important new way of raising ideas and expressing thoughts. But instead of giving us greater freedom, the powers that be have used the internet as a way of making an example of anyone who dares to express what is regarded as an unacceptable opinion. Whatever you may think about making bad jokes about a dying man, or vicious comments about accident victims, such comments should not be grounds for imprisonment. The authorities even have the backing of the ‘dead tree’ media, too. Glasgow’s Herald newspaper has declared in an editorial that a ‘hard line on internet comments is welcome’.

It is truly perverse that when politicians and commentators are waxing lyrical about Mandela, a man who fought for freedom in South Africa, people can be arrested for making a joke or a rude comment in the UK - and get the backing of members of the media when they do so.

Rob Lyons is associate editor at spiked.

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