Is being offensive really a crime?

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Photo by Jay Theis

The recent news headlines have been plagued with stories of online insolence and apparently terrorist tweetings. The latest addition, in the case of Matthew Woods, 20, from Lancashire, has gone one step further this week – it has obtained him a 12 week prison sentence. His crime? A “grossly offensive” series of Facebook posts about the missing girl April Jones, a drunken attempt at a joke.

Coming dangerously close to becoming an obscenity conviction, the story has provoked a massive response from comedians across the country. If the courts can criminalise attempts to make people laugh, however unimaginative or in poor taste, then there is little hope for the comic profession. There has also been a flurry of conversation regarding free speech following the case, as many hold the view that he merely voiced his own opinions on his own page, as millions of users do every day. Should the fact that some people took offence to his comments make him a criminal? The line of acceptability is becoming fuzzier and fuzzier in regards to online traffic.

The “public outcry” referenced in the trial was never so clearly displayed as on the eve of his trial. Mr. Woods was arrested for his own safety after a 50-strong mob attempted to ambush him at his home in Chorley. Similar to the death threats one Twitter user received after sending abusive messages to diver Tom Daley (who then re-tweeted them to all his followers), it could be argued that calling these people out on their bad online behaviour causes more trouble than the original posts.

Woods was jailed under section 127 of the Communications Act of 2003, restricting what is deemed as “grossly offensive”. The Chairman of the court that prosecuted Woods, Bill Hudson, explained the sentence; “The reason for the sentence is the seriousness of the offence, the public outrage that has been caused.” So, in essence, it is the public that decide what constitutes “offensive”. Given, then, that it was effectively the angry mob braying at his door that determined Woods’ conviction, does that make legal sense?

According to the legislation, the people who are grossly offended by the comment don’t even need be the recipient. Comedians everywhere will undoubtedly be cowering under their duvets like children hiding from the bogey monster following the sentencing of Matthew Woods. Given what constitutes “offensive” under this legislation, most UK comedians should have been taken out by a heavily armed SWAT team to an underground bunker with a bag over their head.

Whilst there should clearly be some form of punishment for this man’s crass and frankly stupid comments, does a statement posted on his own Facebook page really warrant 3 months in prison? It was even made public that the judge had intended to sentence him to 18 weeks, but cut a third off for his guilty plea. This legislation is a keen example of a ‘mickey mouse’ law that desperately needs to be altered. Brought into effect as a stop-gap for a legal loophole, the ambiguity and dangerously vague nature of this unjust law despeartely needs to be remedied.

It is feared that the impact this conviction will have upon comedy in the UK will be hugely detrimental, costing the country some of its finest entertainment – people being too scared to do their jobs. A comic’s role is to scratch the surface of bad taste; don’t make them pay the price for one man’s boozy late-night attempt at humour.
Not to mention how much it will cost the taxpayer to keep him at her majesty’s pleasure.

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