On Sunday, I ran a column in the Washington Post detailing how free speech is dying in the West. That column featured cases from England prominently as have many stories on this blog. Now we have yet another free speech case to add to our collection from our cousins across the pond. Barry Thew, 39, was arrested after he wore a handmade tee shirt with offensive anti-police words. He was given four months for his exercise of what should be protected free speech.
PCs Nicola Hughes, 23, and Fiona Bone, 32, were killed on duty in a gun and grenade attack during a routine call.
Barry Thew, 39, of Radcliffe, Manchester, was sentenced in violation of section 4a public order charge – displaying writing or other visible representation with intention of causing harassment, alarm or distress. He further admitted to violating a suspended sentence imposed for a previous offence of cannabis production. The arrest came after he wore the tee-shirt hours after two officers were killed. The shirt said on its front: “One Less PiG Perfect Justice.” On the back: “KiLL A COP 4 Fun.co.uk HA, haaa?”
It is without question a disgusting and disturbing message. However, such grotesque views should be condemned by other citizens through the exercise of free speech. Yet, the police found that the expression of his views constitutes a crime because as Inspector Bryn Williams explained “officers on the ground were just learning of and trying to come to terms with the devastating news that two colleagues had been murdered, Thew thought nothing of going out in public with a T-shirt daubed with appalling handwritten comments on.” That does not sound like a threat but an offensive for police. He further added that most of the public were showing tremendous support for them, but not Thew.
Judge Peter Lakin also did not describe any real threat but rather anger at the content of Thew’s message: “This, on any view, is a shocking case. Your response to the shocking events was to parade around in a T-shirt in the centre of Radcliffe which had on it the most disgusting of slogans. In my judgment, it is utterly depressing that you felt able to stoop so low as to behave in that way. Your mindless behaviour has added to the pain of everyone touched by the deaths of these young officers. You have shown no remorse.” So “mindless” speech that causes “pain” for the public is a crime? This is precisely what the column on Sunday addressed: the trend toward defining permissive free speech by the reaction of third parties as opposed to the right of the speaker to free expression. Here the crime is saying or displaying anything viewed as an intentional effort to cause “harassment, alarm or distress.” Many slogans and campaigns are designed to cause distress and alarm with regard to some social or political matter.
Despite many similarities and close affinity with our English cousins, free speech remains a significant conflict between our two systems. The erosion of free speech in England is alarming and undermines one of the world’s great legal systems. The country has come a long way (in the wrong direction) from the principles of the Sunday soapbox speakers in Hyde Park, London.
Notably, Thew is bitter because of the death of his son three years ago and repeated stop-and-search incidents. That is no excuse for wearing such a vile tee-shirt but he clearly should have the right to do so despite the sadness of many over the deaths of the officers.