A Scottish man has been sentenced to 150 hours of community service as punishment for a “grossly offensive” tweet, despite having few followers, deleting the tweet about 20 minutes after it was posted, and the fact that it was, again, to tweet.
Back in February, 36-year-old Joseph Kelly of Glasgow tweeted “the only good Brit soldier is a deed one, burn auld fella buuuuurn” in response to the news that a former British army officer and World War II veteran named Capt. Tom Moore had died of COVID-19 at the age of 100.
Moore gained fame after raising £32 million (around $45 million) for National Health Service-related charities in April of 2020 by walking 100 laps around his own garden. He was dubbed a “national treasure.” He was knighted. Naturally, a lot of people were infuriated by Kelly’s callous reaction to his death. But an arrest seems like a bit of an overreaction, right?
I hope all the people who love to yell about Twitter violating their freedom of speech for enforcing their own terms of service are taking note. Because a company banning harassment or misinformation or whatever else is not a First Amendment violation—this is what that would look like, literally getting arrested for insulting a public figure.
Of course, the First Amendment is based on the US Constitution. Brits also have a guaranteed right to free speech—specifically, “the right to freedom of expression,” per the Human Rights Act of 1998—but they also have the UK Communications Act, passed in 2003, which prohibits people from using a public electronic communications network to spread content that is “grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or threatening character.”
Kelly was arrested and found guilty of violating the act in February and faced the possibility of up to six months in jail. Community service is obviously preferable but still seems like a pretty unjust response to a tweet.
As a woman whose job is to share opinions on the internet, I’m not arguing that online harassment isn’t a big deal or doesn’t have the potential to cause real harm—it is and it does. But this seems like an overcorrection, especially because the enforcement of this act seems to be completely at the discretion of the sheriff (basically the judge).
In this case, Sheriff Adrian Cottam essentially said he wanted Kelly to be seen as an example for others, to serve as a warning not to speak ill of prominent people. At his trial earlier this year, Cottam said Moore was “a man who had become known as a national hero, who stood for the resilience of the people of a country struggling with a pandemic and the services trying to protect them,” adding, “ His stature and the view of society towards him must be looked at in that light and therefore any comment likewise.”
He also “threatened to put Kelly in the cells if he did not stop shaking his head as prosecutor Liam Haggert spoke about Sir Tom,” according to the Scottish outlet The National.
During sentencing, Cottam even called out Kelly for the small reach of his Twitter account (he appears to have had only a few hundred followers at the time of his tweet), saying that doesn’t make him exempt, and might even make him a better example to others.
“The deterrence is really to show people that despite the steps you took to try and recall matters, as soon as you press the blue button that’s it,” Cottam said. “It’s important for other people to realize how quickly things can get out of control.”
I added, “You are a good example of that, not having many followers.” Burn.
As for Kelly, his attorney tried to argue that his client regretted his tweet, which he posted while he was drunk and in a hard place emotionally.
“He accepts he was wrong. He did not anticipate what would happen. He took steps almost immediately to delete the tweet but the genie was out of the bottle by then,” the defense said. “His level of criminality from him was a drunken post, at a time when he was struggling emotionally, which he regretted and almost instantly removed.”
Clearly, that had no impact on Cottam.
This sort of punishment for a tweet is obviously harsh but things might actually get harsher soon in the UK. Ace TheVerge notes, this act “is set to be replaced by the UK’s sweeping Online Safety Bill, though critics worry that this new legislation will enable similar prosecutions to Kelly’s—with citizens found guilty of sending ‘harmful’ messages based on vague notions of public morality. ”
Might be time to delete those accounts pretty soon.
(image: Matthew Henry from Burst)
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