There is a new free speech controversy in the United Kingdom after Joseph Kelly, 36, was convicted of posting a “grossly offensive” tweet about a war veteran. Kelly has been sentenced to 150 hours of community service. The conviction is another blow to free speech in the UK in a case of clear political speech.
Kelly tweeted about Captain Sir Thomas Moore, a British war veteran who became a national icon for raising money for healthcare workers in 2020. Many of us read his heart-warming story in the United States and took inspiration from it.
Kelly passed away in February 2021 and Kelly declared “The only good Brit soldier is a deed one, burn auld fella buuuuurn.” It was a horribly distasteful and offensive tweet. However, it should also be protected speech. That would certainly be the case in the United States. However, many of us view free speech not as a right wholly contained in the First Amendment but a human right.
The decline of free speech in the United Kingdom has long been a concern for free speech advocates (here and here and here and here and here and here and here). Once you start as a government to criminalize speech, you end up on a slippery slope of censorship. What constitutes hate speech or “malicious communications” remains a highly subjective matter and we have seen a steady expansion of prohibited terms and words and gestures. Even having “toxic ideologies” is now a crime.
This is certainly a toxic viewpoint, but it is also a political viewpoint. Notably, Kelly was also drunk at the time and appears to have immediately regretted the tweet. He deleted it after about 20 minutes, according to Scottish newspaper The National.
Even that was not good enough for the prosecutors who pushed for actual jail time. Under the Communications Act of 2003, online posts that are “grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character” can be punished with up to six months behind bars.
Sheriff Adrian Cottam heralded his enforcement of the law against a drunk who removed the tweet 20 minutes later and apologized. He called this case “deterrence” so “other people to realize how quickly things can get out of control.”
Cottam’s enthusiasm for speech controls show how such laws “quickly get out of control.” Censorship creates an insatiable appetite as people demand that those with opposing views be silenced. There is an alternative. It is called free speech. You allow others to denounce Kelly and allow good speech to triumph over bad speech.