Pope Francis on Freedom of Speech: ‘One Cannot Make Fun of Faith’

Pope Francis has suggested there are limits to freedom of expression, saying in response to the Charlie Hebdo terror attack that “one cannot make fun of faith” and that anyone who throws insults can expect a “punch.” http://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/paris-magazine-attack/pope-francis-freedom-speech-one-cannot-make-fun-faith-n286631

To which I can think of only one response…

On the dubious merit of linking the Charlie Hebdo killings to Western actions in Iraq, Afghanistan or Syria

An idea which appears to be gaining traction in the last few days is that the murderous atrocity committed in Paris last week can be linked to Western interventionism in the Middle East.

Any fool can see that instability in the Middle East and resentment of Western power is driving some people into the arms of extremists. However it is in my view a form of moral cowardice to use this tragedy as a justification for a change in foreign policy.

It is entirely possible to dispute with Western foreign policy on the basis that innocent people have been killed, that it was motivated solely by western political and financial interests, that it is a form of imperialism by proxy, or that it has failed to create a more peaceful and stable society for those we claimed to be trying to help; simply that the Iraq war was a fundamentally immoral, illegal war.

On the other hand, good people should never shrink from doing the right thing even if it does create new enemies for us. The fact that we come under attack for our actions overseas should be neither here nor there in our consideration of the wisdom and morality of our foreign policy. Do we shrink from confronting the far right for fear of reprisals? Should we shrink from helping governments retrieve stolen children in Nigeria for the same reason?

This is not pacifism: it is cowardice.

Whether Western actions in Iraq or Afghanistan acted as a recruitment poster for extremists in Paris is entirely immaterial. Our actions in Iraq were either right or wrong. The actions of extremists in Paris were either right or wrong. To conflate the two questions or politicise the actions of these violent extremists is not only a tenuous and questionable link to make, it uses the language of realpolitik and thereby lacks any courage of conviction.

Teenager arrested for posting video of himself burning a Quran

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.

Teenager arrested over sick joke about Glasgow bin lorry crash

Chortle is reporting that a 19 year old man has been arrested by Sunderland police after handing himself in following complaints regarding a joke posted to his Twitter account:

“So a bin lorry has crashed into 100 people in Glasgow eh, probably the most trash its ever picked up in one day that.”

The tweet was apparently deleted very shortly after it was posted.

Northumbria Police say that the man has been arrested on suspicion of making a malicious communication, and he has been bailed pending further inquiries.

It should be noted that CPS charging guidelines on the charging of social media posts require that a high evidential threshold must be met before determining that a post is sufficiently “grossly offensive” to warrant a charge being made. Further, section 40 of those guidelines is very clear on the role of banter and distasteful jokes as an element of free speech:

  1. Context is important and prosecutors should have regard to the fact that the context in which interactive social media dialogue takes place is quite different to the context in which other communications take place. Access is ubiquitous and instantaneous. Banter, jokes and offensive comments are commonplace and often spontaneous. Communications intended for a few may reach millions. As Eady J stated in the civil case of Smith v ADVFN [2008] 1797 (QB) in relation to comments on an internet bulletin board:

    “… [they are] like contributions to a casual conversation (the analogy sometimes being drawn with people chatting in a bar) which people simply note before moving on; they are often uninhibited, casual and ill thought out; those who participate know this and expect a certain amount of repartee or ‘give and take’.”

  2. Against that background, prosecutors should only proceed with cases under section 1 of the Malicious Communications Act 1988 and section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 where they are satisfied there is sufficient evidence that the communication in question is more than:
    • Offensive, shocking or disturbing; or
    • Satirical, iconoclastic or rude comment; or
    • The expression of unpopular or unfashionable opinion about serious or trivial matters, or banter or humour, even if distasteful to some or painful to those subjected to it.

    If so satisfied, prosecutors should go on to consider whether a prosecution is required in the public interest.

Caroline Criado-Perez statement on today’s sentencing

Caroline Criado Perez has issued a statement on Twitter with regards to today’s sentencing of Isabella Sorely and John Nimmo:

Statement on the twitter sentencing today: It’s hard to get my thoughts together at the moment as my stomach is churning – hearing the outcome has made me realise how tense and anxious I have been feeling. But here goes. I did not attend the sentencing as I didn’t feel I could cope with being in court with them – and I didn’t feel sure that the judge would understand how terrifying and scarring the whole experience has been for me, which again is not something I could face. I feel immensely relieved that the judge clearly has understood the severity of the impact this abuse has had on me. The damages that have been awarded to me will be going to charity. When this has all sunk in I will decide which charity. I hope this statement covers enough for the media. I don’t feel in a fit state to be giving lots of interviews at the moment, and as there are still other investigations on-going, I am still somewhat constrained in what I can say. Thanks for understanding.

Caroline Criado-Perez has repeatedly requested to not be @ messaged or included in Twitter discussions of the case.

Sorely and Nimmo imprisoned over abusive tweets

Isabella Sorely and John Nimmo have been sentenced to custodial sentences today under section  127 of the communications act in relation to abusive/threatening tweets sent to Caroline Criado-Perez and Stella Creasy.

Sorely has received a 12 week sentence, whilst Nimmo received 8 weeks.

One of Sorely’s messages read:

“I’ve only just got out of prison and would happily do more time to see you berried!!”

Nimmo’s messages made references to rape, with one message reading

“I will find you :)”.

The two were also ordered to pay her a total of £800 compensation. Caroline Criado-Perez said that she plans to give the damages to charity.

More here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-25886026

Sentencing remarks here.

The sentencing today follows the news yesterday that police have now decided to charge another Twitter user, Peter Nunn, 33 over tweets sent to Stella Creasy.

Police charge 2 with section 127 offences over tweets to Caroline Criado-Perez

The news has just broken that CPS have charged Isabella Sorley, 23, from Newcastle, and John Nimmo, 25, from South Shields with an offence under Section 127 of The Communications Act 2003 over tweets sent to Caroline Criado-Perez.

Caroline Criado-Perez became the victim of sustained abuse from various Twitter accounts following her successful campaign to have a women featured on the new design for the £10 note. As result of the abuse she received, Criado-Perez also launched a campaign demanding that Twitter provide a “report abuse” button and provide more support for users who were targetted by trolls or were the subject of twitterstorms. This second campaign resulted in a further campaign of abuse and threats. It is unclear from today’s news whether the 2 charged today were involved in either of these campaigns of abuse.

The CPS and police also investigated another user who had sent abuse and threats to Criado-Perez, but concluded that there was insufficient evidence to charge. Another further user is still being investigated by police, and may yet be charged.

Labour MP Stella Creasy was also the recipient of “offensive” messages from yet another user under investigation, however the CPS concluded that “although there was sufficient evidence that an offence had been committed under section 127 of the Communications Act, it would not be in the public interest to prosecute”

More information here.