The “Nazi pug” was offensive; the law far more so. I have written to my MP

https://i1.wp.com/www.rickygervais.com/images/eq_photo2.jpg

“If you don’t believe in a person’s right to say things that you might find ‘grossly offensive’, then you don’t believe in freedom of speech”

I am Jewish. I have known holocaust survivors, as well as families who narrowly escaped the Nazi advance across Europe. I am old enough to remember the images that came out of Belsen, and was old enough and aware enough at the time to realise that but for minor accidents of time and place, that could have been me. To this day, I cannot write of these things without emotion. I have also, to compare small things with large, experienced antisemitism both personal and institutionalised.

I am therefore, presumably, among those whom Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003  would most wish to shield from offence in this case. But the law itself is an offence against my freedom of expression, and I know that there are many who find my own publicly expressed views highly offensive. For this reason, I have written to my MP asking him to support repeal of ths section of the law, and urge my readers in the UK to do likewise.

The facts are not in dispute. A Mr Meechan, apparently annoyed with his girlfriend, trained her dog to raise his paw in imitation of a Nazi salute in response to the cues “Sieg Heil” and “Gas the Jews”, and posted this performance on YouTube, where it has been seen three million times by people who chose to view it. As a result, Mr Meechan was found guilty under Section 127 of the 2003 Communications Act of posting grossly offensive material on social media. The magistrate, in reaching this verdict, described Mr Meechan’s actions as”anti-Semitic and racist in nature” and motivated by religious prejudice.

Kenan Malik, who himself as a person of South Asian extraction has experienced racial prejudice, has posted about the issues involved, and how dangerously we confuse offensiveness, hate speech, and incitement to violence. In this case, I would also add the dangers involved when we include motivation in our definition of the offence.

The case against the current law, the absurdity of its implications, and the dangers arising from the fact that by all accounts the law was indeed correctly interpreted in this case, are eloquently stated in an open letter to his MP  from my good friend Gavin Maurice, who has given me permission to quote from it:

I would like you to do whatever is in your power to make representations for repeal of Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003… I first heard of Meechan when his case became public two years ago, and have followed the case with interest ever since, only because I have an interest in human rights.

This whole episode has been an absurd waste of tax-payer money when you consider that this was a conviction under a sophistic interpretation of a law that should not exist in a free society. I view this ruling as a violation of Meechan’s human rights (specifically, Article 10 of the Human Rights Act 1998). And by extension, also a degradation of my own rights.

The British group Index on Censorship seems to agree with me on this point, and their chief executive Jodie Ginsburg has said:

“Numerous rulings by British and European courts have affirmed that freedom of expression includes the right to offend. Defending everyone’s right to free speech must include defending the rights of those who say things we find shocking or offensive. Otherwise, the freedom is meaningless.”

However, having read S.127, it would seem that the sheriff has arguably ruled in accord with the letter of the law. This makes this episode even more troubling— since we have a law in our country that can, and now evidently will, be used to criminalise someone for making an unpopular joke on a public platform…

To my understanding, S.127 provides no guidelines for what sort of material will be considered “grossly offensive”, so there is no way for the public to know in advance whether their comments will be approved by our inquisitors until after they have been expressed. This lends itself to arbitrary application of the law.

As barrister Matthew Scott put it:

“[S.127] is a law that could hardly have been designed better if its purpose was to generate grievances between different sections of society.”

…I do not consider it to be the role of our government, legislature or judiciary to police speech or expression… I urge you as my representative to take this matter seriously and to make representations for repeal of Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003.

(Gavin also refers to the claim that the whole thing was a joke. I suspect it was more like clickbait, whose runaway success has been augmented by the legal reaction. But that is not the point.)

I repeat my appeal to readers in the UK to write to their MP in similar terms. As Ricky Gervais puts it,

“If you don’t believe in a person’s right to say things that you might find ‘grossly offensive’, then you don’t believe in freedom of speech.”

Image from Ricky Gervais website

About Paul Braterman

Science writer, former chemistry professor; committee member British Centre for Science Education; board member and science adviser Scottish Secular Society; former member editorial board, Origins of Life, and associate, NASA Astrobiology Insitute; first popsci book, From Stars to Stalagmites 2012

Posted on March 26, 2018, in Politics, Society and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. Well said, and I agree. This particular law has led to ridiculous convictions before (including one for posting this joke online: What’s the difference between Mark Bridger and Santa Claus?; account here).

    Convictions such as that one led to the DPP issuing guidelines (link) to prevent such cases. But, a question, do those only apply in England and Wales, and not in Scotland? I gather that the public prosecutor is a different body in Scotland.

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    • The public prosecutor is indeed a separate body in Scotland, and out of fear of appearing to condone racism has acted unreasonably in another case I know of, involving a good friend (no details, to prtotect privacy, but some readers will know what I’m referring to)

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  2. Surely, it’s a case of amending the law to make it more specific rather as post-war Germany have made it a criminal offence to dress up as a Nazi Stormtrooper, or in fact, eulogising historic characters among the WW2 perpetrators of Germany’s shame. I do agree that there us a dangerous precedent being set by over-generalisation of legislation that degenerates to a catch-all situation.

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  3. IMO The German law criminalises stupidity. That in itself I consider stupid.

    As regards this case I believe a lot of law in the UK is open to interpretation. This one badly so

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  4. When I first caught sight of an email flagging this new post I thought it was something to do with Jeremy Corbyn and a mural (that I haven’t viewed).

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  5. A problem with some of this subjective regulation is that offense, or whatever, is in the eye of the beholder. Not necessarily the eyes of a public prosecuter either: literally the beholder, who need be neither the offended person nor themselves offended.

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  6. Thank you for a clear well written piece. I fear that episodes such as there are not only wrong but also counter-productive as they make the racist or anti-Semite the victim and make them the defenders of moral rights.

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  7. I agree with your conclusions but this rot started along time ago and is infiltrating into every area of life. Poor Enid Blyton sold 500 million books but they are frowned upon in our enlightened times. Political correctness has gone completely crazy and language is slowly becoming bland and neutralized. It’s a field day for lawyers and many are frightened to speak in public incase they are pounced upon by those who want to standardize everything including speech. Children must be treated like delicate plants and never exposed to anger and only taught but experts who watch their every move and inclination. It does us good to be offended ; it makes us think about our own position and its an important part of communication.

    Liked by 1 person

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