“What about the familys who’ve been brutally killed. The women who have been raped. The children who have been sliced up”. These are the words of Azhar Ahmed. They were described by his defence lawyer as ‘legitimate concerns’ about the victims of war.
His comments however continued along a far more offensive line. He wrote, “All soldiers should die and go to hell”. It was for these comments, taken as a whole, that enabled district judge Jane Goodwin to sentence him to 240 hours of community service and pay court costs of £300.
His crime? According to the Guardian report of the trial, the judge ruled that his comments were ‘grossly offensive‘ and ‘beyond the pale of what is tolerable in our society‘.
This prosecution should never have occurred. It is policing opinion and serves no public interest.
As Executive Director of Human Rights Watch tweeted
To clarify, I found his comments offensive. Calling for soldiers to ‘die and go to hell’ is deeply offensive. This however should not enough for the state to get involved.
The phrase the judge used, that his comments fall ‘beyond the pales of what is tolerable in our society’ is deeply worrying. If a court of law uses this criteria (as they currently do) it means that we develop a negative correlation between freedom of speech and how tolerant our society is.
We have a built in mechanism in our law that says that if our society grows more intolerant then we reflect that by clamping down on what people can say…is this not counter intuitive?
Equally, who judges what is acceptable in our society? Do we trust judges to be sociological guardians of our freedoms by analysing what is and is not offensive?
There is a simple distinction to be made that illustrates why Azhar should never have been prosecuted. Were his comments ‘threatening’ or were they just ‘offensive’? Being offensive should not be illegal, being threatening should be.
This is an important distinction as I have explained previously.
This point is illustrated if you play a game called ‘spin the tabloid table’. Take all the characteristics of this case and apply them to another moral panic and see how you feel about it.
Imagine a hypothetical tweet. “All paedophiles should die and go to hell”. Offensive yes. Threatening no. Like it or not, people should be free say any religious/cultural/ethnic/social/professional group should die and go to hell. This is a price we pay for living in a free society. This is different from acting on these beliefs or inciting others to act on these beliefs.
Azhar’s case is just the latest where our state has prosecuted someone for being offensive. A dangerous and unwelcome erosion of our freedoms without any clear explanation to why it is needed.