Three Twitter users in the UK have been arrested for posting anti-Semitic comments online following Tottenham Hotspur’s Premier League match against West Ham earlier this autumn, Reuters has reported. The three men, from London, Wiltshire, and Canning Town in London, were detained by police for ‘inciting racial hatred’, joining a growing number of Internet users to be arrested by police for making controversial or hateful statements online. From pensioners being arrested for criticising religion with signs on their windows, to gay activist Peter Tatchell’s arrest for protesting the Islamist group Hizb Ut-Tahrir, the right to draw the line between free speech and ‘hate speech’ has increasingly come to be claimed by elected officials and the police; a trend which has free speech campaigners worried.
While all three men arrested this week have been bailed pending further police enquiries, they are not the only ones to have run afoul of Britain’s restrictive free speech laws. For several years, a long line of disagreeable internet users have become the victims of sensitive politicians and thought police across the country, and that number is growing. The case of these three men, previously unrelated to each other and making their comments each from a different city, shows a coordinated police effort to track down offenders. Many in Britain have not yet forgotten the controversial arrests of eleven such Twitter users for the supposed crime of making insults and crass sexual remarks about a sitting Labour MP earlier this year, and the Spurs case bears strong similarities to other Twitter arrests.
However, the cause of free speech is not without its defenders.
Earlier this year, supporters of the right to insult and be insulted in Britain won a major victory with the successful repeal of restrictive language in Section 5 of the Public Order Act, which criminalised “insulting words or behaviour”.
“I’m a politician. I get insulted all the time. It’s part of the cut-and-thrust of politics, and actually it’s an important part of democracy that you’re allowed to say, within reason, what you like,” explains Conservative MP David Davis, in a statement of support for the campaign last year.
“What this does is actually make the courts and the police sit in judgement on whether somebody feels insulted or not, which actually has a terrible chilling effect on democracy.”
While the offending clause has been successfully removed from the wording of Section 5, much is left to be done. Verbal threats and abuse are still illegal, and rightly so, but handing over the power to define what does and does not fall under these brackets to the police may have far reaching consequences. In many cases, all it takes is one offended councilman to spark a full scale police crackdown.
As reported by the Daily Mail, two men in Rugeley, Staffordshire were detained by police during a conflict about the placement of a miners’ memorial in their town centre. One of the men, Neil Phillips, was detained and questioned by police after Liberal Democrat Councillor Tim Jones objected to an off colour joke about the death of Nelson Mandela, posted on Facebook.
“It was an awful experience. I was fingerprinted, they took DNA and my computer. It was a couple of jokes, Bernard Manning type. There was no hatred. You can question the taste, but they’re not hateful. I told the police they got plenty of ‘likes’,” said Phillips in a public statement.
“What happened to freedom of speech? I think they over-reacted massively. Those jokes are ‘out there’, anyway.”
While neither man is currently facing official charges, and charges have yet to be filed against the three Twitter users in the Hotspurs case, there is no question that harm has been done. To be hauled off to the police station, interrogated, or even face the threat of criminal charges for making statements – however vile – that have attracted the ire of an elected official is not a mark of a free society.
Section 5 may have been reformed, but so long as these Twitter arrests continue, we live in a country where insults are illegal.