Sometimes, if we genuinely care about the freedom of expression, we’re called upon to defend the right to say things we find distasteful, wrong, strongly disagreeable unreasonable, etc. For example, I find Stephen Fry and Richard Dawkins’ comments on Christianity, often directed at Catholicism, often ill-informed, plain wrong and insulting, but their right to openly voice those comments is paramount and critical to a liberal society.
I’m sure most would agree that the freedom of expression couldn’t realistically be an absolute, that the the absolute freedom of expression, without consequence, is an extreme and untenable position. We’re collectively pretty vague about how that freedom should be limited. However, this freedom has gradually become more limited to what The Powers That Be deem acceptable, and our society, which we like to imagine is ‘liberal’ and ‘tolerant’ has been drifting towards an insidious kind of puritanism. Things that we used to criticise authoritarian regimes for are now coming to pass in 21st century Britain – this really isn’t an understatement when the minor details of how a Mark Meechan, also known as ‘Count Dankula’, was recently convicted become apparent.
In 2016, Meechan had trained his dog to perform a ‘Nazi salute’ whenever he said ‘sieg heil’ and ‘gas the Jews’, and published a video of this on YouTube. Yes, we could reasonably opine it was in bad taste, that it would inevitably cause offence to some, and that there might have been consequences for posting it. The video was intended to be humourous, and that was the self-evident context. It cannot be rationally interpreted as ‘far right propaganda’ or an incitement to anything.
Compare what Meechan published with the fact he was dragged through the court system for two years, convicted of a criminal offence and will very likely receive a jail sentence on 23rd April. Perhaps you’re still thinking that’s not a big deal, right? Surely there are checks and balances against the ideologically-driven misuse of the law, right? Like an actual judge upholding British values, and a jury of 12 peers who must to be convinced of Meechan’s guilt beyond reasonable doubt?
Well, no. Another very disturbing facet of Meechan’s trial was the absence of a jury. The conviction, as far as I could tell, rested on the subjective, and frankly questionable, judgement of one official, obviously interpreting the 2003 Communications Act way outside its intended scope:
‘[…] Sheriff Derek O’Carroll said the video was “threatening and grossly offensive. […] He found Meechan guilty of sending by “means of a public electronic communications network a message or other matter that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character”.‘
The problems with this are obvious. I cannot imagine how a reasonable person would deem the video threatening or grossly offensive, but a jury of 12 men and women of sound mind should have decided that. The second problem is the law itself, as quoted here (section 127 of the Communications Act), was clearly intended for extreme cases. The CPS has an advisory page confirming this.
‘In Chambers v DPP  EWHC 2157 (Admin), the Lord Chief Justice made it clear that:
“Satirical, or iconoclastic, or rude comment, the expression of unpopular or unfashionable opinion about serious or trivial matters, banter or humour, even if distasteful to some or painful to those subjected to it should and no doubt will continue at their customary level, quite undiminished by [section 127 of the Communications Act 2003].”‘