Why Azhar Ahmed should never have been prosecuted – freedom of speech

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.

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13 Comments

Filed under Human rights, Politics, Social comment

13 responses to “Why Azhar Ahmed should never have been prosecuted – freedom of speech

  1. Sorry to come back again but in my previous rant I forgot about your test of “offensive vs threatening”

    Although I agree that most offensive messages should just be forgotten and as sensible ad
    ults we should move on.

    How should we view an issue like cyber bullying? On most occassions there are no threats at all just comments that are offensive to an individual. Should they merely move on?

    Why does no one agree that freedom of speech could lead to misery for some?

    Is there room for a small amendment of your test?

    As I said before, real life rarely fits neat theoretical arguments. Especially black and white.

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    • Live4footy – I would also distinguish between what a state should be doing and what a community should do. So for example – if someone tweets me an offensive message I may chose to ban/report him (because I don’t want that sort of behaviour to be part of my community) but wouldn’t want him to be arrested!

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      • So the bullys would just be banned but not face any consequences for their chosen actions?

        You also seem to feel there is a difference between mediums.

        Do you feel communication via social networks is different than, say face to face?

        Offensive material is easy to avoid in most cases but not always. In those rare cases were we can’t avoid it we should be protected against potential abuse.

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  2. The Thunderer

    Unfortunately, it is currently against the law to send grossly offensive comments. The judge as you know did not make the law. The Police and the CPS arrested and charged the man under the current law.

    If you read the judgement notes, the judge had to decide if the comments were indeed Grossly Offensive. As they were made on a page giving condolences and sympathy he knew what effect they would have. The first part of his message was a legitimate political comment but it then turned into an offensive message.

    Whether there should be a law that stops offensive messages is a moot point because it is currently in force and the Judge is bound by it.

    There is much more to this case though that muddies the water such as right wing involvement that ensured the offended parties got to see the message. The poor lady who lost here son would never have seen the post if it had not been forwarded to her by people with a cause. She would never have been able to take offence.

    As ever, things are never so cut and dried. The Judge has been abused by the far right for being too lenient and not sending the man to prison and by liberals who feel it should never have come to court. Neither of which seem to be the Judges fault.

    All Judges work on sentencing guidelines (not made by them) so can only give certain sentences and all judges have to apply the current law.

    The man was defended in court and had the full weight of any laws available on his side but there were none to back him up.

    Seems like a perfect democratic system at work. Elected official make the laws, the police enforce the law, the judiciary remain independent and apply the law and appropriate sentences and we all get to debate it!

    Damned if you do and damned if you don’t

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    • Sam

      The Judge pretty much summed up the whole point when he said to him, “with freedom of speech comes responsibility. On March 8 you failed to live up to that responsibility.” We have a responsibility to acknowledge that consequences will arise from our words.

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  3. Sam

    I cannot but disagree. We live in a very liberal society were people are able to have different beliefs, sexualities and what not. Go to parts of the middle East and Asia (and even in middle Europe, i.e. Poland / Ukraine) you’ll find vocal and physical hostility towards minorities. We have to tackle such radicals somehow and we do it through the courts. If we keep up this ‘freedom of speech’ plea, it will bite us in the butt through a denigration of our national identity. We need to maintain a sense of national identity and if a small part of it is defending the heritage of soldiers (past or present) then so be it.

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    • I think freedom of speech is *part* of our national identity – once you rate ‘defending the heritage of soldiers (past or present)’ more highly than free speech, you are really in trouble. The recent police T shirt case was more marginal – bordered on incitement.

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    • Sam, Thanks for your comment.

      I would be interested to hear what you feel ‘our national identity’ is – that we need to defend. This is important as this ‘national identity’ is the one reason you give why we should prosecute someone for expressing an opinion!

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      • Sam

        Hello Steve,
        I think a country has an identity from aspects in religion, monarchies, literature (i.e. great canons), laws, arts, etc. (the list can quickly open further into specific societal traditions). I believe a central aspect of British identity today, with respect to our brutal history of colonisation, is a liberal society. Yet, to be British is to be part of the United Kingdom and therefore an active member involved with the positive progression of the country; where as Mr Amhed was found to be preaching directly against the country paying his council tax bills and feeding his family. Therefore, he was purposely sought to create dissensions amongst and directly at the British public. His opinion was actually an attack.

        Expressing an opinion can get you in jail. The young chap who made jokes about the missing 5 year old got a 12 week sentence and, at first, he was arrested for his own safety. People do not take lightly to delicate and traditional morals and values being mocked. There are on-going stories on the web of people, young and old, who’s opinion that Jesus is real gets them fearing for their lives. So while I support the arrest of Amhed, I see the extremes on the other side of the world (and argument).

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        • By your definition, I am not British because I value the individuals who happen to live on these Islands more than the concept of the British nation state. If the British nation pragmatically makes life better for people then great – BUT, if it makes life worse for people then not so great. You are asking me to put the (I think made up) concept of Britishness, before human rights and freedom of speech. I am not sure I can do that without very good reason.

          His opinion was just that, an opinion. It didn’t pose any threat on soldiers, or even the much more vague thing that you refer to as Britishness. All it did was insult people and I cannot see why the state should legislate against that.

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          • Sam

            Then where do we as a nation draw a line when people or groups seek to undermine the country? Shall we sit back and say ‘well, lets analyse the case, let’s look at the human rights of this person until we can create a system that actually allows people to do as they please and cry ‘human rights’ when a level of discipline comes knocking.’ Think about it. Would we have fought as hard to win the World Wars if we did not have such a resilience and unity in the nation? For me I see circumstances like that define a national identity, which creates a heritage that one can be proud to be part of. If my made up concepts aren’t enough, please do provide your own; as you asked for my ideas, but responded without your own.

            I’m British born and raised, but my Dad was an Indian. I’m not naive to these matters. You’ve taken my words out of context. I value people from all backgrounds, have friends of various nationalities and religions. We do have freedom of speech, there are areas in London designated for that very purpose. Yet whether people like it or not we are, and have a long tradition of being, a Christian nation. This is central to laws and social order that protects you and I day to day; overseas as well.

            Go to Pakistan and dare to utter allowed that Jesus or any other God is better than Mohammed in the streets, then you’ll see how liberal British freedom of speech and choice is.

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  4. Chris Usher

    There are going to be a lot of Christian preachers going to he’ll, since many mainstream Christian denominations believe anyone not a Christian will go to hell

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  5. I quite agree – and initially the charge included something relating to ‘racially aggravated public order offences’ – though that was dropped.

    Like

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