One teenager made offensive comments about a murdered child on Twitter. Another young man wrote on Facebook that British soldiers should “go to hell”. A third posted a picture of a burning paper poppy, symbol of remembrance of war dead.
All were arrested, two convicted, and one jailed – and they’re not the only ones. In Britain, hundreds of people are prosecuted each year for posts, tweets, texts and emails deemed menacing, indecent, offensive or obscene, and the number is growing as our online lives expand.
Lawyers say the mounting tally shows the problems of a legal system trying to regulate 21st century communications with 20th century laws. Civil libertarians say it is a threat to free speech in an age when the internet gives everyone the power to be heard around the world.
“Fifty years ago someone would have made a really offensive comment in a public space and it would have been heard by relatively few people,” said Mike Harris of the free-speech group Index on Censorship. “Now someone posts a picture of a burning poppy on Facebook and potentially hundreds of thousands of people can see it.
“People take it upon themselves to report this offensive material to police, and suddenly you’ve got the criminalisation of offensive speech.”
Figures obtained by the Associated Press through a freedom of information request show a steadily rising tally of prosecutions in Britain for electronic communications – phone calls, emails and social media posts – that are “grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character – from 1263 in 2009 to 1843 in 2011. The number of convictions grew from 873 in 2009 to 1286 last year.
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