This article was originally published at http://www.robertsharp.co.uk
Teenager Azhar Ahmed has been found guilty of posting an offensive Facebook message following the deaths of six British soldiers in Afghanistan. The message he posted on his Facebook wall is reproduced below:
The judge called this “derogatory, disrespectful and inflammatory”.
Although Ahmed’s message is deeply unpleasant, I do not think that updates of this nature should qualify for a criminal conviction. Much political speech is “derogatory, disrespectful and inflammatory” and the first part of his message reads very much like a politcal opinion.
In the latter part of the update, he says that the soldiers “should die” and “go to hell”. Wishing for someone to die is also unpleasant, but it is not the same as a death threat. If it were, then thousands of Trades Unionists would surely have been prosecuted for wishing death and Hell upon Margaret Thatcher! No-one was specifically mentioned or targeted in Ahmed’s message. Moreover, it was broadcast to those in his Social Network – not towards the soldiers’ families.
To my mind, this reads like the frustrated outpourings of an inarticulate teenager, similar to the @Rileyy_69 and Tom Daley controversy. It is not the whipping up of an angry mob (unless the 8 Facebook ‘likes’ somehow count).
The appropriate response to this kind of ill-informed and unpleasant, offensive language, is through the power of the pen or the keyboard. Social opprobrium, and even Facebook’s ‘Report’ function for T&C violations are all means of discouraging this kind of speech, without resorting to criminal sanctions.
What’s next? Well, the religious overtones and talk of Hell in Ahmed’s message is noteworthy. The next step on the slippery slope is the criminalisation of offensive criticism of, and by, religious organisations. And those union members with their Thatcher’s Grave t-shirts better watch out too.
There’s another aspect to this, related to the other big free expression story of the moment: the “Innocence of Muslims” film which has been cited as the cause of rioting in Libya that led to the death of the US Ambassador.
As Alistair Campbell said, the British don’t ‘do’ religion, so blaspheming Christianity is hardly controversial these days. But it occurs to me that soldiers who have died in the line of duty fulfil a similar ‘sacred’ role for the secular British as the Prophet Mohammed (Peace Be Upon Him) serves for practicing Muslims. Any denigration of either is seen as “derogatory, disrespectful and inflammatory” and worthy of punishment. I am reminded of Charlie Gilmour, imprisoned for swinging on the Cenotaph.
I do think that soldiers killed in the line of duty should be revered. Their sacrifices should be memorialised, and society has a duty of care to the families they leave behind. However, saying unpleasant things about them should not be a criminal offence, because sometimes their actions may be in need of scrutiny and criticism. Moreover, criminalising derogatory comments about one sacred thing opens the door to criminalisation of other sacred things too.
And before you know it, we will be confronted with a pantheon of plastic Gods and tacky idols, protected from criticism, staring mutely at us, as we stare mutely back.