Banged up for banging on?
The arrest of an EDL leader for ranting against Islam on Facebook should worry anyone interested in freedom.
Anyone in the UK prone to ranting on Facebook should be afraid. Given a case earlier this week, it now seems that simply posting offensive comments is enough to have you arrested and forced to pay regular visits to a police station.
The comments posted by the co-leader of the English Defence League (EDL), Kevin Carroll, will certainly offend some people. Responding to an article about a ritual slaughter of cattle for the Islamic Eid al-Adha festival, complete with pictures of a dozen cows lying in pools of blood in an arena, Carroll wrote in block capitals: ‘They are all fucking backward savages, a devil-spawned death cult worshipping all that is unholy and barbaric, pure evil.’
Such a rant, while certainly distasteful, is hardly uncommon on Facebook or other types of social media. In this case, much the same sentiment could have been uttered by an animal-rights activist expressing his distaste about the Halal method of slaughtering cattle. It seems, however, that one of Carroll’s so-called Facebook ‘friends’ took offence and sent a screengrab of the comments to police. And, according to the British Freedom Party (BFP) – which Carroll has recently become chairman of – the police deemed these comments sufficient to have him arrested in dramatic fashion on his way to a meeting in Luton last Saturday. As Carroll describes: ‘They swooped down on me, blues flashing and sirens wailing – you would have thought I was a serial killer or something. Right in the middle of the town centre.’
According to Bedfordshire police, Carroll was arrested for ‘display[ing] threatening abusive / insulting written material with intent / likely to stir up racial hatred’. Racial hatred? While certainly Carroll’s comments could be seen to be offensive to Muslims, such a charge appears to overlook the fact that Islam is a religion, not a race. Indeed, to make the odd assumption that Islam only has an appeal to a particular race speaks volumes about the prejudices of those making such an assumption. Islam is no more a race than Christianity or Buddhism.
Equally, the Koran itself is hardly averse to expressing disdain for those who hold differing beliefs. Take for example this quote from ‘The Cow’ by Dawood: ‘God’s curse be upon the infidels! Evil is that for which they have bartered away their souls… They have incurred God’s most inexorable wrath. An ignominious punishment awaits the unbelievers.’ Should Muslims also be concerned that if they post excerpts from the Koran, they too will be arrested for stirring up hatred against those who worship religions other than Islam?
But this raises the question: why should anyone be arrested for expressing their views, regardless of how offensive? You don’t have to be an EDL supporter – which certainly I am not – to be chilled by the fact that you can be arrested for saying what’s on your mind. This has dangerous implications for freedom of speech, which is not divisible: either we all have it – tattooed EDL-types included – or none of us do. And if from now on we feel we must pause before posting online for fear that our comments could lead to your arrest, then speech is no longer free.
Few – even those who would typically be claim to be staunch defenders of free speech – seem to have expressed concern about Carroll’s treatment. Not least those on the anti-fascist left, who took to Twitter to celebrate Carroll’s arrest. ‘Another nail in the EDL’s coffin?’, Unite Against Fascism tweeted. Others expressed a lack of sympathy and a desire to see Carroll locked up for his comments, hoping he would be placed in a cell next to his cousin – EDL founder Tommy Robinson – who is currently serving a 10-month sentence for entering the US using a false passport last year.
Contrary to some claims that Carroll is being singled out in a conspiratorial fashion to bring down the EDL, Carroll is not alone in his treatment by the police. Despite recent guidelines from the director of public prosecutions, instructing that prosecutions for communications that are ‘grossly offensive, indecent, obscene or false’ are ‘unlikely to be in the public interest’, the police have decided to pursue a number of such cases. People have been arrested on Facebook for posting comments ranging from expressing support for the 2011 English riots, to unsympathetic rants about British soldiers in Afghanistan. In all these cases, it is assumed that fellow friends on Facebook are so stupid, so easily manipulated, that they will act on such comments.
Kevin Carroll should be entitled, as much as the rest of us, to bore his Facebook friends to tears with rants, regardless of the content. When the police pick and choose which rants are sufficiently ‘stirring of hatred’ to warrant arrest, it is not just Facebook but society as a whole that becomes less free.
Patrick Hayes is a columnist for spiked.
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