In U.K., Freedom of Speech and Press Hang in the Balance

By:  Alex Newman
12/26/2012
       
In U.K., Freedom of Speech and Press Hang in the Balance

British subjects have never had the broad protections for freedom of speech or the press that American citizens take for granted as guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, but historically, the United Kingdom has been a beacon for free expression when compared to the rest of the world. Today, however, the right to freely express oneself in the U.K. is increasingly under threat, as exemplified by hundreds of bizarre prosecutions in recent years. The debate is heating up, though, as lawmakers consider reforms that would expand or quash liberty.

British subjects have never had the broad protections for freedom of speech or the press that American citizens take for granted as guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, but historically, the United Kingdom has been a beacon for free expression when compared to the rest of the world. Today, however, the right to freely express oneself in the U.K. is increasingly under threat, as exemplified by hundreds of bizarre prosecutions in recent years. The debate is heating up, though, as lawmakers consider reforms that would expand or quash liberty.

In recent years, authorities have been fiendishly prosecuting individuals merely for what they say on social media services such as Twitter and Facebook. Using controversial laws purporting to criminalize “insulting” or “offensive” comments, for instance, prosecutors have brought well over 1,000 cases each year since 2009. The numbers are steadily rising, too, according to data obtained by the Associated Press through freedom of information requests showing that 1,286 people were convicted last year merely for what they said in electronic communications.

Consider the case of 20-year-old Azhar Ahmed. After reports that some British troops had been killed in Afghanistan, he made a post on Facebook saying that soldiers should "should die and go to hell." He reportedly deleted the offensive comments almost immediately, saying he had written them in anger. Still, he was arrested, convicted, and sentenced to 240 hours of so-called “community service.” Ahmed got off easy though — more than a few victims of the U.K. speech police have actually been jailed for their supposed “crimes.”

In another incident that attracted international attention, a 19-year-old man was arrested and held for a day after posting a picture of a burning paper poppy on Remembrance Day, a day to commemorate those who lost their lives defending freedom that is often associated with the poppy. He was finally released on bail and may still face charges. "What was the point of winning either World War if, in 2012, someone can be casually arrested by Kent Police for burning a poppy?" wondered lawyer David Allen Green, who has worked on other free speech cases.

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