By Charles C. W. Cooke
I see that the more zealous among my countrymen are up to their old tricks again:
A SHOP boss was arrested and quizzed by police for eight hours for cracking Nelson Mandela jokes on the internet.
Neil Phillips said he was fingerprinted, DNA-swabbed and had his computers seized.
The 44-year-old was held after posting: “My PC takes so long to shut down I’ve decided to call it Nelson Mandela.”
Another read: “Free Mandela – switch the power off.”
But police swooped after a councillor complained over the gags about the former South African leader, who passed away on Thursday, aged 95.
In case you’re blissfully unaware of British local political terms, “councillors” are the elected representatives of the country’s local governments. Which is to say that the story is this: A private citizen made a bad joke about a deceased foreign leader on a webpage, so a government employee ordered the police to “swoop” and to arrest him. Why? Because he was offended:
Mr Phillips, who runs Crumbs sandwich shop in Rugeley, Staffs, was arrested after complaints by Cllr Tim Jones about the one-liners, aired when the anti-apartheid hero was critically ill.
In what possible universe is this acceptable? I have documented similar British cases here, here, here, here, and here. Naturally, these only scratch the surface.
One of the depressing things that marks these stories is how astonished the arrestee always is:
Mr Phillips who insisted he meant no harm, said: “It was an awful experience. I was fingerprinted, they took DNA and my computer.
“It was a couple of jokes, Bernard Manning type,” he added. “There was no hatred. What happened to freedom of speech? I think they over-reacted massively.”
What “happened to freedom of speech,” Neil? Well, the Public Order Act of 1986 happened to freedom of speech – in particular, Section 5, which makes it a crime in England for anyone ”with intent to cause a person harassment, alarm or distress” to
(a) [use] threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour, or (b) [display] any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting, thereby causing that or another person harassment, alarm or distress.
In other words, Section 5 allows anybody to have anybody else investigated for speaking. And they have. The arrests have run the gamut: from Muslims criticizing atheists to atheists critcizing Muslims; from a young man who told a police officer that his horse was “gay” to protesters criticizing Scientology; from a Christian arguing against homosexuality on the street to a man arrested and charged with offending a chaplain. I’ll give them this: The British are at least thorough with their suppression.
Currently, advocacy groups who have noticed that the Act is inimical to individual liberty are celebrating the mild reforms that their sustained criticism have forced. One group, Reform Section 5, recently posted on its page the news that:
The Home Office has at last confirmed that the amendment to remove ‘insults’ from Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 will come into force on 1 February 2014.
The amendment, now known as Section 57 of the Crime and Courts Act, has been given its commencement order by the Government.
Earlier this year the House of Commons accepted the amendment, which was passed by the House of Lords last December.
The Government Minister told the Committee in the House of Commons at the time: “Those who have campaigned for this change in the law feel that the word ‘insulting’ in Section 5 could discourage people from exercising their right to freedom of speech.”
This is an improvement, obviously. But it’s still a disgrace. As the Guardian notes, this means that “the use of insulting language will no longer be illegal in cases in which a specific victim cannot be identified.” Well, good. But what about if they can be identified? What if I want to insult the prime minister in the strongest possible terms. That’s illegal? Unacceptable. As I have said before, what would be infinitely better than these piecemeal reforms is if the British government were to print out Section 5 of the Public Order Act, burn it on live television, and then apologize abjectly to the public for having so infringed its inalienable rights. There is a strong coalition of people in favor of this: conservatives, religious figures, comedians, gay-rights activists. Repeal now, please. And nothing less.
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