As another individual is sentenced to jail time for causing offense, it seems that at present a week doesn’t go by where outrage over a joke or insensitive comment isn’t splashed across the front pages.
There have been two notable cases in October: Barry Thew, who wore a T-shirt bearing the message “One less pig; perfect justice” and “Killacopforfun.com haha”, was sentenced to jail for eight months under the Public Order Act and Matthew Woods was sentenced to 12 weeks in jail after posting “grossly offensive” jokes on his Facebook page about missing April Jones under the Malicious Communications Act 2003. It is worth noting on the same day and in the same court that Woods was sentenced, a man was fined £100 and ordered to pay £100 compensation for racially abusing a woman to her face.
Both cases clearly involved insensitive and upsetting actions, but is it right that the law now sees hurt feelings and emotional distress as an emotional assault worthy of several months in prison? The law rightly criminalises language that seeks to incite violence or hatred, but to prosecute every ill-judged remark or close-to-the-bone joke that offends some is crossing a line that a free society should not accept as necessary or proportionate.
In light of a another case, where an individual made homophobic comments about Tom Daley and his diving partner, the Director of Public Prosecutions has decided to issue guidelines on when criminal charges should be brought against people posting abusive comments on social media. The guidelines would be a welcome aid to the Crown Prosecution Service, however it should not be the job of the police and the courts to prevent people’s feelings from being hurt.
The legislation that criminalised Woods’ jokes is section 127 of the Communications Act 2003, which outlaws “grossly offensive” messages. The reasoning behind the sentence was “the seriousness of the offence, the public outrage that has been caused.” It is deeply concerning that “public outrage” has become akin to rule of the mob and that the Act has created a crime that allows any individual, whether the intended recipient or not, to be outraged.
The journalist Charlie Skelton makes a good point: “It’s a rationale praised by comedy writers the Dawson Bros: “If a joke has offended even one solitary person,” they say, “the perpetrator should be jailed without trial. A sketch about a dead parrot will not be funny to someone mourning the passing of a beloved bird. Jail the Monty Python six. A skit about gardening implements will sicken anyone whose relative was impaled on a fork handle. Jail Corbett and send Barker’s gravestone to landfill. And a man falling through an open bar hatch will deeply offend the countless people who’ve lost loved ones to lethal pub mishaps. Jail David Jason. And while you’re there, lock up Trigger as an accomplice.”
Very few people would be in any rush to defend the actions of both Thew and Woods, however surely the public shame that they will endure should be punishment enough. The idea that you should spend several months in prison for writing something on a T-shirt when shoplifters, burglars and a whole host of other offenders serve far less is absurd and grossly disproportionate. It is critical that we reform the law to protect freedom of speech and focus the police on bringing to justice those who seek to incite harm, not those who cause offence.