Sticks and stones may break my bones, but the police want a word about the names you called me.
Jordan Blackshaw and Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan will now be over a quarter of the way through their sentences, and will hopefully be released before too much longer. As acts of stupidity go, theirs was fairly spectacular: setting up pages on Facebook advertising meeting places for riots during the hysteria of last year clearly was asking for trouble. Nonetheless, no one turned up at either, and in Sutcliffe-Keenan's case he always maintained it had been a joke that had badly backfired. For the two to be sentenced to terms far in excess of what others who actually took part in the riots received was an overreaction of quite staggering proportions. That their appeal against the length of their sentences was also rejected is a stain on the justice system.
If this was simply an aberration, an example of the judge in question being as overcome by the hysteria of the moment then it wouldn't be so serious. Since Paul Chambers finally succeeded in having his conviction for sending a "menacing" message on Twitter quashed at the High Court, albeit only after he had attracted the support of celebrities and pro bono legal representation, an absurd case that the Crown Prosecution Service should never have brought let alone twice contested at appeal, it might have been hoped that judges and magistrates would think long and carefully before convicting anyone else under section 127 of the Communications Act 2003.
Yet this week has seen two more such cases prosecuted, neither of which should have ever reached a court. Azhar Ahmed was more fortunate than Matthew Woods, although not by much. Earlier in the year Ahmed was moved in the aftermath of the deaths of four servicemen in Afghanistan to post an angry Facebook status update in which he said that "all soldiers should die and go to hell". His status also made clear that more attention should be paid to the deaths of innocents in the country, although this seems to have been much overlooked. It was clearly an angry, very much over the top and potentially offensive message, but it was a political one. A failure to be eloquent should not be used to punish someone for making their voice heard. Equally clear is that Ahmed did not say that soldiers should be killed; and as the court presumably accepted, Ahmed afterwards apologised to those who responded to his update, saying that he hadn't meant for anyone to be upset by it.
Despite all of this, Ahmed was convicted of sending a "grossly offensive" message, and was told by district judge Jane Goodwin that he had gone beyond the bounds of freedom of speech. Indeed, she said that he had "failed" to live up to the responsibility that comes with it. He was ordered to perform 240 hours of community service over two years; by comparison, the TV presenter Justin Lee Collins was ordered this week to perform 140 hours of community service after he was found guilty of a prolonged campaign of harassment against his ex-girlfriend.
Undoubtedly worthy of less sympathy is Matthew Woods. Woods pleaded guilty earlier this week to sending a grossly offensive message after he was arrested "for his own safety". Woods' crime was to post jokes on his Facebook page about both April Jones and Madeleine McCann, one of which was described by magistrate Bill Hudson as "abhorrent". This seems to be a reference to Woods' show-stopping gag:
If delivered on a stage, it would have been worthy of boos. Posted online during a search for a child, with all the emotions surrounding such a disappearance, Hudson decided it was worthy of three months in prison. Only Woods' early guilty plea prevented it from being for the full six months available under the law. Earlier the same day the court fined a man £100 and ordered him to pay £100 in compensation after he called a woman who had pulled up alongside him in her car a "fucking black cunt".
Woods was badly advised, if indeed he was legally advised at all. It seems dubious however whether or not an appeal would be worth it, as the joke clearly is grossly offensive. The problem here is the law itself: we should not be criminalising grossly offensive messages purely because they are sent online. No amount of seminars between Keir Starmer, lawyers and the social networks are going to make a difference when the law was drafted at a time when the closest thing to Facebook and Twitter were Friendster and Friends Reunited. It's also ridiculous that the onus should be placed on the social networks themselves to police what is and isn't "grossly offensive" or "menacing" when it should be down to users to not outrage themselves. There's a massive difference between someone posting jokes on their personal page that they suspect will only be read by their friends, never imagining that they'll be widely linked to or retweeted and someone directing their ire straight at someone, and it's one which the courts are not taking into account.
It's also the case though that as the Heresiarch says, true free speech has never been very popular in this country and seems to be becoming less so. That judges now seem to believe that prison sentences are an appropriate punishment for saying or writing things that clearly do not incite hatred of any variety but which do hurt feelings is a sad indictment of what a petty, pathetic bunch many of us appear to have become. Twitter storms and online witch hunts rather than ignoring or calmly criticising the obnoxious and mean-spirited now seem the accepted norm, and it's a deeply dispiriting change.