Bus driver Andrew Holland said last year has been a nightmare. He has spent six months on bail, hired an attorney, and stood accused of a heinous crime. People ridiculed him and shunned him for allegedly possessing a film that showed a woman having sex with a tiger. The police charged him with possession of an extreme pornographic image. No one however appeared to actually watch or analyze the film. The film turned out to be a man in a tiger costume who kept saying ‘That’s grrrrrreat’ – the catchphrase of Frosted Flakes cereal mascot Tony the Tiger. All charges have now been dropped, but one has to wonder how the police or prosecutor could have missed this small detail. Putting aside the fact that a man in a tiger outfit hardly looks like the real thing, a talking tiger might have been a clue.
Holland, 51, received the video from a friend as a joke. He said that he watched only six seconds of the video, but he was publicly humiliated and targeted by vigilantes. He said that the hate campaign led to his losing his job and a heart attack. In addition, he was denied contact with his young daughter for more than a year
He is now trying to get a change in the law governing pornography to protect material that is “harmless but crude.” The law, passed in 2009, makes it a crime to possess pornographic images depicting acts threatening a person’s life; threatening serious injury to a person’s anus, breasts or genitals; bestiality; or necrophilia. While only passed five years ago, the law has resulted in more than 5,500 prosecutions.
The standard under the law is dangerously vague in requiring proof that the image be “pornographic; grossly offensive, disgusting, or otherwise of an obscene character.” Terms like “offensive” or “disgusting” would allow a great array of images to be included under the law. Nevertheless, the drafters tacked on a catch-all category of “or otherwise . . . obscene character.”
For years, I have been writing about the comprehensive attack on free speech rights in England (here and here and here and and and here and and here and here and here), including a recent move to include “unsavory” content as prohibited. As noted in a recent column, free speech appears to be dying in the West with the increasing criminalization of speech. The criminal code in England is now becoming a patchwork of overlapping, ambiguous standards that criminalize speech considered offensive, discriminatory, or “gross”. More than any country, England (the source for so many of our own legal traditions) appears to have lost faith — or patience — with free speech.
This case illustrates not only a criminal law that is too sweeping but a criminal justice system that is falling to perform basic threshold tests to protect the rights of the accused.