After being convicted and imprisoned for four months at Minshull Street Crown Court, what he daubed on his T-shirt was described by police as ‘morally reprehensible‘. No one denies what Barry Thew wrote and then paraded around Radcliffe was grossly offensive. Many people will agree his actions were appalling, odious even.
This follows on from the jailing for three months of Matthew Woods for ‘abhorrent’ and ‘dispicable‘ comments made about missing children Madeleine McCann and April Jones, after he pleaded guilty in court.
But in jailing Thew for ‘a public order offence’ and Woods for ‘sending a message or other matter that is grossly offensive by means of a public electronic communications network’, the powers that be have gone too in criminalising expressions and viewpoints that, while disgusting and probably demonstrating severely warped minds, incite neither violence nor any other crime.
Quietly over the years the constraints on speech that were designed to prevent incitement to engage in criminal actions have been altered to fold in words that offend. No matter how much outrage and upset we feel about the views and comments people like Thew and Woods decide to spew forth, what we are seeing is increasing restriction and a disturbing erosion of an individual’s freedom of expression.
While in itself this erosion may seem like no bad thing in the case of Thew and Woods, we should be feeling real concern about how further restrictions and erosions may be applied in order to criminalise normal and necessary dissent against the authorities, or even a supposed consensus view on an issue.
These two episodes show we do not have a free society where no one has the right to not be offended, but an increasingly authoritarian and paternalist society where periodical fits of morality – that phrase to beautifully turned by Thomas Macauley to describe the ridiculousness of the public getting on its high horse to exhibit virtue – among members of the public are seized upon by ‘the powers that be’ to further curtail essential rights and freedoms.
Sending these grotesque specimens to prison for what they have thought and said, when people convicted of offences against the person such as assault, or who kill people through poor or dangerous driving, are allowed to retain their liberty should be sounding warning bells. The State is more concerned about going after people for their thoughts than going after those who commit harmful and criminal acts. It’s an injustice. But it is also a very real danger.