The case of the burning poppy

A 19-year old in Canterbury found himself hauled into jail by the police last Sunday, because he was in violation of the Malicious Communications Act of 1988 – a British law that makes it a crime to transmit anything “indecent or grossly offensive, or which conveys a threat… [where] there is an intent to cause distress or anxiety to the recipient,” as the UK Guardian summarized.

What was this ruffian’s offense?  He uploaded a video of a burning poppy to Facebook.

The poppy is a revered symbol of fallen soldiers in the UK, and Sunday was Remembrance Day.  The video was therefore meant as an insult to veterans.  It was accompanied by a more explicit insult in the form of a message which few British media sources felt inclined to quote, but the Guardian was game, and transcribed it as “How about that, you squadey c****.”  Translated into standard American English, that means “I am a huge jackass, pay attention to me.”

Attention was indeed paid, leading to Sir Dimwit of the Flaming Poppy landing in jail, and a good deal of understandable consternation from those who think Britain’s notion of free speech has already become far too atrophied:

Civil liberties groups criticised the arrest as a restriction on freedom of expression. The campaign group Big Brother Watch called on the police to drop their investigation. Nick Pickles, the director, said: “Kent police need to urgently release this man and drop an utterly ridiculous investigation into something that has harmed no one.

“It is not illegal to offend people and, however idiotic or insensitive the picture may have been, it is certainly not worthy of arrest. The case highlights the urgent need to reform a law that poses a serious risk to freedom of speech after several ludicrous prosecutions in recent months.”

On Twitter, there was widespread condemnation. Thom Lumley, tweeting as Hotstepperrr, wrote: “Dear idiots at Kent police, burning a poppy may be obnoxious, but it is not a criminal offence.”

In addition to their unreasonable fear of using the letter “z” in words like “criticized,” the British have become a lot more comfortable with restrictions upon free speech than Americans.  But the burning-poppy case seems to have galvanized fears that such restrictions upon speech inevitably devolve into the arbitrary exercise of government “discretion,” which means government power.

Another case that caught their  attention, alluded to in the Guardian’s report, involved a footballer (“soccer player,” for those who might have misplaced their British / American translation guides) named Daniel Thomas, who posted a homophobic Twitter message about Olympic divers Tom Daley and Peter Waterfield.  This particular message was judged “not grossly offensive” by the speech police, according to the UK Daily Mail.

Maybe they should begin rating these things with burning poppies.  A one-poppy offense gets you a stern glare and some disapproving editorials, if you’re famous enough; four poppies or worse, and it’s off to jail with you.

Another Briton who managed to slip some bad taste past the speech police was Paul Chambers, who did something that might have gotten him in quite a bit of hot water across the pond as well: he joked about blowing up an airport.  Back in 2010, he sent a Twitter message that said, “Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed.  You’ve got a week and a bit to get your s**t together, otherwise I am blowing the airport sky high!”  He was arrested and convicted, but won acquittal after an appeal, because his speech was carefully weighed by the judges and officially declared to be a “silly joke” in “bad taste.”

We’ve been having our own free speech crisis here in the United States, as anyone with an attention span longer than three weeks (i.e. a distressingly small portion of American voters) may recall.   From the United Kingdom’s experiences, we can draw several useful lessons, including the career-threatening danger of using Twitter if you’re a jerk.  More importantly, it’s the arbitrary nature of these judgments that Americans should find most disturbing.  Who decides where to draw the line between a “silly joke” and punishable “improper speech?”  Who decides which groups, traditions, and religions can be mocked without fear, and which cannot?  Free speech is hard, but very much worth the effort.  The alternative is both frightening and terribly confusing.