Today Matthew Wood was sentenced to 12 weeks in jail for sending grossly offensive electronic communications.
His crime was to post comments on Facebook about Madeleine McCann and April Jones.
Chairman of the bench, magistrate Bill Hudson, said his comments were so serious and “abhorrent” that he deserved the longest sentence they could pass, less a third to give credit for his early guilty plea.
This is just one of a number of cases where comments on social media have led to criminal charges being brought. As a libertarian, it is of great concern when the law steps in to adjudicate in what are matters of taste. A basic feature of human beings is to make jokes about current events. I can remember following various tragedies, the rounds of inevitable jokes flowed within hours. The death of Diana, the death of Freddie Mercury, the Herald of Free Enterprise ferry, the list is endless. In the age of text messaging, the internet and now social media these jokes and comments spread faster than ever.
The question of offence often arises. Is it okay to offend someone?
The truth is that a free society that allows the freedom of expression, creates the chance to offend in equal measure. Removing the ability to offend removes the freedom of expression. What is offensive to one person is not the same as what is offensive to another. Any attempt to frame offence legally is bound to fail as a result. Surely judges cannot be allowed to determine what is ‘grossly offensive’?
Offence can lead to serious consequences. The publication of articles and cartoons that depict the Prophet Mohammed has led to the death of people by others who feel their own beliefs justified the killing of them. Monty Python’s ‘The Life of Brian’ and Martin Scorcese’s ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ led to global protests by Christians claiming blasphemy. In a free society blasphemy should an alien concept. Blasphemy laws simply legalise the suppression the views of one group in society that another doesn’t like. This dilemma is currently causing huge issues in Pakistan, and the serious suppression of minority groups.
The freedom of expression is vital to our society. We balance the freedom hold our own values with the fact that others will disagree. Matthew Wood’s comments were probably unpleasant, but that is not the point. He has been criminalised for expressing them. We should be our own arbitrators of taste. I follow this in my own life. If there is a TV or radio programme I don’t like, I turn it off. If someone at work or on Facebook who says something I find offensive, I ignore them. For similar reasons I would never buy a tabloid newspaper. I would never, ever buy one. Period. However, banning and censorship should not be considered. Just pick something else.
Comedians like Frankie Boyle and Jimmy Carr are not everyone’s taste. They do push the limits of comedy, but they also serve a useful role in society. They remind us that freedom of expression is sometimes difficult to hear and very uncomfortable. They challenge our concepts at the limits. This is a useful thing to be reminded of. Of course, if you don’t like them, you have an off button.
Freedom of expression and speech are essential in a democracy. They are too important to be left to politicians or judges.