Sieg Fail: The UK’s Problematic Hate Crime Law, Explored

Heard a joke once: Man goes to doctor. Says he’s depressed. Says life seems harsh and cruel.  Says he feels all alone in a threatening world where what lies ahead is vague and uncertain. Doctor says, "Treatment is simple. Great clown Pagliacci is in town tonight. Go and see him. That should pick you up."

Man bursts into tears. Says, "But doctor..Pagliacci was arrested for an offensive joke.”

Back in my college days I fancied myself something of a comedy writer and did what many people did, and pushed the envelope: writing and shooting a ‘comedy’ sketch for ‘Walked Into A Door’ brand concealer. The tagline? “The brand for when he just loves you too hard.”

This was objectively offensive, and despite finding an actress that found it legitimately funny, the rest of my class and administrators at the comedy writing program were not happy. The sketch was not allowed to air, and I got a tongue lashing about the offensive nature of the sketch, which was the extent of my punishment.

Thankfully, I lived in America. Had I lived in the U.K, uploaded it, and stuck to my guns about its comedic value, I could have been charged with a hate crime under The Malicious Communications Act of 2003 (ironically replacing law written in 1984).

The act basically allows for offensive jokes and threats made about cultures, races, or religions on the internet to be prosecuted. Meaning abhorrent phrases and acts, even with no clear, direct victim, can be persecuted as ‘grossly offensive’.

I assure you my sketch was grossly offensive. As was, frankly, Markus 'Count Dankula' Meechan’s video depicting his girlfriend’s dog Nazi saluting to images of Hitler and to repeated phrases regarding Jews being gassed as a way to ‘uncute’ the dog. And despite a 2012 clarification of the rules designed to protect free speech, Mr. Dankula was hit with a hate crime charge and conviction for his video; and could be sentenced up to 5 years in Prison come April 24th.

(Read the details here)

The U.K’s concept of a hate crime is a little different from how the United States does it. A hate crime in the United States is normally an enhanced penalty for an already committed crime, for instance, a racially motivated murder or beating would carry a stronger penalty than a ‘regular’ murder.

In the U.K a hate crime can have no direct victim at all, thanks to incitement clauses. As The Metropolitan Police Put It:

“The offence of incitement to hatred occurs when someone acts in a way that is threatening and intended to stir up hatred. That could be in words, pictures, videos, music, and includes information posted on websites.”

If that seems vague to you, it’s only because it is.

Meechan’s comedy video was considered incitement - in the eyes of the law, advocating in favor of Nazi policies and ideologies. In addition to Meechan, the Communications Act has been used to:  

Seriously penalize a man who made a joke about an Airport.

Jail another man for 12 weeks who made several truly abhorrent jokes about a young dead girl.

Arrest posters of anti-semitic remarks on Facebook.

Put a man in jail for 70 days for burning the Koran on YouTube.

And those are just the cases that have gained notoriety and come across the proverbial radar of media. Depending on your side of things you’re either filled with a sense of justice being served, or something close to a seething rage.

I mean, none of these people actively physically hurt anyone or targeted anyone specific with threats, right? The people who were emotionally harmed by these comments could simply ignore them, or block the people that wrote the hurtful comments - or get them banned from Facebook. That offensive Facebook comments could result in arrest, prosecution, and internment is fundamentally wrong and fascist. The very point of free speech is protecting speech that is hurtful, after all. If there’s no actual victim or realistic threat of violence, there’s nothing to be arrested for.

Then again, perhaps you rightly view the Internet and social media as a frequently toxic place (that’s only getting worse), filled with race-baiting memes, jokes about minorities, vitriol toward religions and refugees, and a growing sentiment of White Pride and Ethno Nationalism that cowers behind ‘free speech’ protections. Perhaps you think it is up to the government to curb the growth of ‘shit-posting’ and race-based trolling. In the same way that you can’t walk into a cafeteria, or even a bar, and start making offensive jokes about Jews or Sharia Law at the top of your lungs without causing a disturbance and potentially being arrested, clearly the same should hold true for the Internet. There is a difference, after all, between being critical and hateful - funny and overtly offensive.

Like with just about everything, the truth is likely somewhere in the middle. The Internet is getting uglier, and the loudest, pithiest, voices get the grease. Folks seek out opinions they agree with and demean those they disagree with via furious vengeance. At the same time the concept of ‘hate’ is subjective - and leaving it up to courts to make objective choices regarding subjective opinions is a tricky road to hoe.

The man sent to jail for burning the Koran was doing so in response to videos of a Muslim burning poppies on Remembrance Day who was only fined $50 - which would be similar to burning the American flag on the 4th of July.

Somehow those punishments don’t seem particularly consistent.

Meanwhile, there is Matthew Woods, a 19-year-old who made several just flat-out offensive, unfunny jokes about a missing 5-year-old girl named April Jones (including sexual comments), and was promptly arrested and plead guilty to “...grossly offensive (conduct) by means of a public electronic communications network” and was sentenced to 12 weeks in Jail. That someone was insane enough to make sexual jokes about a missing 5-year-old girl is, to me, cause for serious alarm and likely worthy of police intervention. But 12 weeks in jail for that grossness vs. up to 5 years for Meechan’s offense...seems devastatingly inconsistent.

Worse, you’d have to imagine these jailings aren’t going to change anyone’s mind. Is Woods or Meechan or the guy who burned the Koran suddenly less likely to be ‘hateful’ because they went to jail? Will they be rehabilitated? Probably not. Radicalized, if anything.

That said, the only answer to all of this is being nicer to each other. If we succumb to the seductive allure of confrontation as our primary mode of communication, and shock as our primary attention grabber on social media, we’re going to ruin everything. People will be reduced to their least nuanced thoughts in an effort to gain attention, notoriety and respect. Insanely complicated topics like religion, race, and prejudice will lose all complexity in favor of who says what first, and who says it fastest, loudest, and in the most emotionally gratifying way. Justice Junk Food - all the feeling of doing the right thing, none of the actual nutrition or morality. 

Meechan made a stupid, unfunny video about a dog Nazi saluting, and could face prison time because the U.K was so on edge - way back in 2003 - about the forthcoming onslaught of horrible grossness that they were primed and ready to throw the eBook at anyone they deemed in violation of their seemingly fluid definition of decency.

And now that the onslaught has arrived, no one appears to be on the same page, with wildly varying punishments and procedures regardless of the ‘crime.’ Governments are targeting social media companies, the people on those companies’ platforms, and taking a shotgun approach to suppressing what they view as vile or hateful or flat-out wrong, all the while failing to realize that it’s impossible to browbeat a bigot or wrong-headed individual into changing their mind - that these laws are treating symptoms, not the disease. Suppressing the cough, not treating the cold, will only let the disease fester.

Peace through suppression and harmony through oppressive legislation is a form of benign tyranny that all of us, humans, Nazis, Muslims, Government Officials, and pugs, would be smart to avoid at all costs.

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