Tuesday, 9 October 2012

No matter how bad, nobody should be arrested for a joke.

I think it goes without saying that pretty much everyone agrees that what's happened to April is tragic, my thoughts are with her family.  I really hope she is found soon, although it is inconceivable that she'd still be with us.  How anyone could do that to her is completely beyond me, I hope that the truth comes out, the correct person is found and sentenced accordingly (I always believe in innocence before proven guilty but it sounds like the police are confident that it's Mark Bridger).   

However, I don't want this post to be about this horrible story, I instead want to talk about Matthew Woods, who has been jailed for 12 weeks for posts made on his Facebook account.  The link of course is that these posts were 'jokes' about both April and Madeleine McCann.   He pleaded to sending by means of a public electronic communications network a message or other matter that is grossly offensive.

"Chairman of the bench, magistrate Bill Hudson, said his comments were so serious and "abhorrent" that he deserved the longest sentence they could pass, less a third to give credit for his early guilty plea."
 "The reason for the sentence is the seriousness of the offence, the public outrage that has been caused and we felt there was no other sentence this court could have passed which conveys to you the abhorrence that many in society feel this crime should receive."

My main question is is this offence serious? As far as I'm concerned, nobody has the right not to be offended.  The charge itself - "grossly offensive" - is such a subjective opinion that I don't feel it has a place in a court of law.  From what I've read (I shan't repeat them) the jokes were definitely insensitive, in bad taste and crass, basically Matthew was stupid.  However I'm sure hundreds of other teenagers/young adults will have made similar 'sick' jokes over the past week - Matthew certainly wasn't the first, otherwise there wouldn't have been one on Sikipedia for him to basically copy.  If you don't think there are many out there just type Madeleine McCann into Google:

The third auto-fill suggestion is jokes regarding her.  This is sad but a true fact of society, when bad things happen, some people make jokes about it. I remember when Princess Diana died, a week or so later I started secondary school (in year 7) and I was already hearing jokes that would offend some people.  With the Twin Towers (9/11) it took a little longer, but it wasn't long before there were plenty of jokes doing the rounds.  Then with Madeleine McCann, I was doing pub quizzes where every week for a few months there'd be at least one team name that referred to her (in an attempt at comedy).  Some people even make money from it, the likes of Frankie Boyle have never shied away from this type of subject matter - in fact they are somewhat famous for offending certain people and sections of society.  

At the end of the day, people can usually chose to avoid such 'jokes', for instance, I could have not attended the same pub quiz where I knew the names might have included references to Madeleine, I could unfollow Frankie Boyle from Twitter, but I don't because I don't feel grossly offended by the 'jokes', even if they are not to my taste.  In the same vein, anyone of Matthew Woods' friends could have unfriended him of Facebook, or even just stopped his updates appearing on their news feed.  It's not like you don't have a choice.

I agree with Dan Falchikov on Living on Words Alone:

Apparently Matthew Woods had 50 people going to his home about the posts that he made, this sounds like almost a lynch mob.  The state should not be there to enforce the will of the mob, but to provide rational calm in such circumstances.  At the end of the day, who has been actually hurt by Matthew Woods' specific posts?  Only himself and his own future chances in life because of these charges.  The family may have been upset to read them, but they are only words (which pale into insignificance in the scheme of their passed week or so), and would they have even seen them if these charges hadn't been brought?

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