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Post on Facebook and be damned

The police are banging up people for drunkenly posting comments on Facebook. Could you be next?

Patrick Hayes

Topics Free Speech

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Imagine logging on to Facebook after hearing about the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby in Woolwich and seeing the following post from a friend: ‘Feeling like burning down some mosques in Portsmouth, anyone want to join me?’ What would your most likely reaction be? Would you tell her you’ll be right over with a can of petrol, or would you ask whether she was drunk?

Given that no mosques were burnt down in Portsmouth following the above Facebook post, it appears that the friends of 24-year-old Michaela Turner assumed that she was drunk. And they’d have been right – the young mum was indeed a few sheets to the wind. Sadly, Portsmouth police did not approach Turner’s drunk Facebook musings in the sober manner of her friends. No, the police decided to charge Turner under Section 127 of the Communication Act 2003. And last week, Turner was handed an eight-week suspended jail sentence.

During proceedings at Portsmouth magistrates’ court, the prosecution explained the reasoning behind the charge: ‘Police at that time were monitoring community tension, not just in this part of the country but across the country… It’s fortunate that there were no events in the days following these comments. The very nature of these comments created the risk that something could happen.’

So for speaking her mind on Facebook, Turner has now been criminalised and is lucky to escape incarceration. And why? It was not because her words led to actions; rather, it was because they ‘created the risk’ of actions happening.

The case of Turner is not unique. The police’s monitoring of ‘community tension’ on Facebook has led to arrests all over the country. Police have also reportedly made arrests in Hertfordshire, Lincoln, Bristol, Surrey and Sussex for Woolwich-related comments online.

For example, Lincolnshire man Benjamin Flatters was locked up for two weeks at the end of last month. He had been reported to the police for making comments directed at Muslims on Facebook that ‘could incite racial hatred’. A Facebook ‘friend’ of his also appears to have received a verbal ticking-off from police.

Joining Flatters in the slammer is Norbury-based boxer Tony Perrin, who drunkenly changed his Facebook photo to a picture of himself with a balaclava and a BB gun. He also posted comments such as: ‘I will do a lot worse than what took place yesterday and I have like-minded people behind me… You Muslims aren’t the only people that make explosives and [you’re] not the only people willing to commit acts of insane violence.’ For these comments, Perrin has been locked up for four months.

Others may well join them, including Darryl Handford, a 26-year-old from Bishops Stortford. He was arrested and charged for posting comments deemed to be ‘grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character’. Elsewhere, Adam Rogers from Woolwich has been accused of sending an ‘offensive, indecent or menacing message’.

This spate of arrests continues the trend of heavy-handed action by police busy monitoring Facebook posts for possible sources of ‘community tension’. Following the English riots in 2011, for example, a number of youths received criminal charges for (often drunkenly) setting up riot ‘groups’, or posting comments such as ‘let’s have a riot!’.

There’s little doubt that posting knee-jerk, threatening messages on Facebook is idiotic, and Turner, Flatters, Perrin et al should rightly be criticised for doing so. However, in none of these cases does it appear that they have done anything more than post their thoughts online. There should be a distinction between criticism of these individuals for their comments and the criminalisation of them for making them.

These arrests and subsequent convictions don’t just leave the individuals involved with criminal records; they also lead to a widespread chilling of free speech online. The police’s involvement sends a clear message that You Are Being Watched when you log on and, should your posts verge on being unacceptable, then you could be getting a knock on the door from the boys in blue.

An awful lot of comments made online surely fall under the category of ‘creating the risk that an action could take place’. It’s enough to make you question not just whether a status update is worth sharing with friends, but whether it could lead to time inside. It seems it is no longer just your Facebook friends deciding whether a post should be ‘liked’ but the authorities, too.

Bizarrely, at the same time as the liberal commentariat has expressed collective shock over the revelations about PRISM, the US-government’s secret project to monitor sites such as Facebook and Google, the banging-up of people for Facebook and Twitter posts has barely been commented on. And that ought to concern us all.

Patrick Hayes is a columnist for spiked.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Free Speech

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