It's really not my intent to make this bash-the-UK week.
In my defense, they seem to be trolling me.
Dateline: Lancashire. A 19-year-old oaf named Michael Woods writes nasty and stupid things on the internet about the abduction and murder of five-year-old April Jones. For this — for the crime of sending a "message or other matter that is grossly offensive by means of a public electronic communications network" — he was arrested "for his own safety" and, after a guilty plea, sentenced to three months in jail by outraged authorites. What did he say?
Matthew Woods, 19, from Chorley, Lancashire, made derogatory posts about April and missing Madeleine McCann after getting the idea from Sickipedia, a website that "trades in sick jokes".
Among his comments was: "I woke up this morning in the back of a transit van with two beautiful little girls, I found April in a hopeless place."
Another read: "Who in their right mind would abduct a ginger kid?"
Others stated: "I love April Jones" and "Could have just started the greatest Facebook argument ever. April Fools, Who Wants Maddie?"
He also wrote comments of a sexually explicit nature about April, who went missing last week from near her home in Machynlleth, mid-Wales.
Thanks to typically poor reporting of legal matters, it's difficult to suss out whether Woods posted these things as Facebook status updates, or whether he posted them to someone else's wall, or as a comment on a story about April Jones. The press coverage is sufficient to show, however, that the United Kingdom has successful trained its citizens to believe that offensive speech is a criminal justice matter:
Chorley magistrates heard members of the public were so upset about his posts they reported them to the police.
Woods is a dick, to be sure, but a mundane one. Much worse trolls — the sort who specifically target victims' families and memorial pages — are common, and places like YouTube are full of folks fond of saying things just as stupid and offensive to get attention.
Is the United Kingdom going to spend its time and money (not to mention its common-law heritage) going after all of them?
The answer appears to be that the UK will continue to arrest and prosecute online asshats who offend a sufficient number of people, or who offend people in connection with a sufficiently popular public figure. Being a racist dick about a popular footballer on Twitter will get you two months in jail. Tash-talk and hyperbole on Twitter about an Olympic contender will get you arrested. Trash-talk both a rival football club and Catholics on Facebook? That's eight months in jail. Racist twitter messages to a different footballer? That's arrest, conviction, and community service. Make a bad joke about blowing up an airport – a joke nobody takes seriously? That's a two year legal ordeal for you, mate.
What's the difference between someone who gets prosecuted, and someone who doesn't? Well, it seems pretty clear that being a dick to a popular athlete is unusually risky. But the difference may only exist in the minds of the U.K.'s criminal justice system, and struggling to figure it out themselves. The potential for preferential treatment and abuse is manifest.
I could look at each case and argue, in detail, why the prosecution of the lout in question was a violation of basic free speech principles. But the most alarming thing about this trend is not any individual case, but the government's goals and the public sentiment supporting them. Free people don't claim a right to be free of offense, and don't expect the criminal justice system to protect them from mean words, as opposed to true threats. Limited and principled governments don't cultivate amongst the populace a desire to see rude speech punished with jail.
So: the point is not that the United Kingdom's Canute-like ambition to sweep asshattery from the internet is ridiculous. The point is that it encourages the populace to be subservient to government, and encourages the government to take advantage of that subservience.