Below is one of the most difficult blogs which I have ever written. Once of the worst aspects of defending the online right to freedom of expression is that one often finds oneself defending people with whom one profoundly disagrees, and who’s views one finds personally offensive. Forewarned, read on…
Earlier this week, “James”, a 19 year old man from Leeds posted a video to Facebook depicting him burning a Quran and throwing it down the toilet.
I suspect that most ordinary and decent people would agree that this is a pretty offensive and exceptionally idiotic thing to do.
Inevitably, within a matter of hours screen grabs of his video, his profile photo and indeed what purported to be his home address were circulating on social media. Responses ranging from disappointment and anger to threats of violence appeared either on the Facebook post itself, or on the numerous shared screengrabs. Visits were made to the address which had been distributed.
The poster became concerned for his safety and eventually contacted the police himself. In an echo of the Azhar Ahmed case from 2012, West Yorkshire police responded by arresting him for an offence under section 127 of the Communications Act. They are now taking advice from the DPP on whether to prosecute.
West Yorkshire Police in particular are in a very difficult position here. Having arrested charged and convicted Azhar Ahmed in 2102 for being rude about dead soldiers, and after being put under pressure to do so by public order agitations and threats from far right groups such as EDL and CXF, for West Yorkshire Police to release “James” without charge now would open them up to accusations of hypocrisy if not actual racism.
So what we have in the balance here are two speech acts, both of which could be regarded as an expression of personal political view, both expressed in terms which many would find offensive.
Logically therefore, it follows that both should be charged and convicted.
But hold on a minute here… Are we in danger of creating a society which censors online speech on the basis of the offence it causes to others with a devoutly and personally held belief? Could it be that by prosecuting and convicting Azhar Ahmed and arresting “James”, we have now created an exceptionally dangerous precedent for society in which ideological censorship becomes the norm?
When are we going to see Richard Dawkins in a cell, or those who were involved in the production of Monty Python and The Holy Grail?
When Azhar Ahmed was convicted in 2012, I was personally appalled that the judicial system had effectively been bent to the will of a far right extremist element which had made threats to him, his friends and his family. When Deyka Ayan Hassan was convicted, I truly believe that we were cementing a truly dangerous precedent therein.
And right now I feel the same about “James” – whether I agree with what he said or not, I am sure that most reasonable people, Muslim or otherwise, would not wish us to sleepwalk into a society in which speech in general is censored in the interests of those who hold the more extreme ideological positions. It is entirely possible that just like Azhar Ahmed, “James” is just a slightly misguided teenager shooting his mouth off, who needs a calm word from some people with more wisdom. I’m not sure that handing either of these people a criminal record will help anybody.
However it should be noted that since the Azhar Ahmed case, the new CPS guidelines on the prosecution of such cases have been published. West Yorkshire Police and the CPS should be consulting those very carefully.