Taking a match to freedom of speech
Filming yourself burning a poppy might not be the most sophisticated political critique, but it shouldn’t be a crime.
Last week, we learned that you can now add ‘posting a picture on Facebook of a poppy being burned while calling squaddies names’ to the long list of things that can get you arrested. A 19-year-old from Canterbury was arrested and bailed for that very offence under the Malicious Communications Act. He joins a long list of ‘people arrested for saying or doing stupid things online’, such as the man who joked on Twitter about blowing up an airport, the teenager jailed for joking about the death of a toddler, and the drunk student tweeting racist slurs about a footballer, among others.
The teenager arrested last week was had up, not for actually burning a remembrance poppy, but for posting a picture of the burning poppy on his Facebook page. This apparently constitutes ‘malicious communication’. This is not to say, however, that the act of burning a poppy in public cannot land you in trouble. It certainly can. Last year, a member of the now-banned Islamist group Muslims Against Crusades was fined £50 for publicly burning a poppy.
Expressing your hatred of Britain’s armed forces on Facebook is now enough to see yourself being manhandled by the long arm of the law. Earlier this year, 20-year-old Azhar Ahmed was fined £300 and given 240 hours’ community service for saying on Facebook that ‘all British soldiers should die and go to hell’.
It seems that in Britain, the armed forces are an institution immune from criticism, or at least crude criticism. In his novel Coming Up For Air, George Orwell described the English middle class as believing the ‘good old English notion that the red-coats are the scum of the earth and anyone who joins the Army will die of drink and go straight to hell, but at the same time they were good patriots, stuck Union Jacks in their windows’. Today, expressing that ‘old English notion’ on Facebook or Twitter could land you with a fine in accordance with your income or a few hundred hours forced of painting and decorating at a local community centre.
The ability to air any political view without fear of legal repercussion is a vital component of a liberal society. However infantile poppy burning is, it is still a political statement. The armed forces cannot be placed outside of politics, outside of the realms of criticism or ridicule. Other people’s sensitivities – in this case the sensitivities of those who support the armed forces – should not be allowed to trump the commitment to freedom of expression. The army, like all state institutions, must be open to criticism if we are to hold true to the values of an open and democratic society.
It is true that the poppy burner and the others prosecuted for criticising the military have made rather childish, even obscene criticisms of the British military, and it seems highly unlikely that someone like the Guardian columnist Seumas Milne will be arrested for his next article criticising British militarism. However, as unsophisticated and tasteless as some arguments might be, its not for the law to decide whether the rest of us can hear them. The right to freedom of speech should not depend upon the sophistication of the political view being put forward; either we have free speech to express our views politically or we don’t.
In this recent case, dubbed ‘Poppycock’ online, we can see once again the inability of the legal system to understand social-media sites such as Facebook. It is now becoming ever more common for people to be arrested and even jailed for posting stupid or obnoxious comments on their own entirely personal, little-read webpages. It’s time to stop criminalising people for having the modern equivalent of a heated political conversation.
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