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November 16, 2012

U.K. Law Enforcement Plays Moral Police on Social Media

By Brittany Walters-Bearden, TMCnet Contributor

Everyone has done it: a Twitter (News - Alert) or Facebook rant against a politician, an ex, or whoever or whatever it is that is irking you that day, causing you to (inappropriately) share your feelings with your 500 “closest” friends. There is always backlash and embarrassment, but for some in the U.K., the backlash is a little more serious than a call from your mother.

After six British troops were killed in Afghanistan, 20-year-old Azhar Ahmed posted on Facebook (News - Alert) that soldiers should “die and go to hell”, which he deleted quickly thereafter. Nonetheless, the inappropriate comment netted him 240 hours of community service.

When five-year-old April Jones went missing, 19-year-old Matthew Woods posted an offensive comment on Facebook. He was not as lucky as Ahmed: he was sentenced to 12 weeks in jail.

One tweet caught particular attention in January of 2010, when Paul Chambers worried that snow would keep him from being able to fly to see his girlfriend. The tweet, which read, “Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your (expletive) together otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high”, ruined his life.

Although Justice Igor Judge ruled that the law should not prevent “satirical or iconoclastic or rude comment, the expression of unpopular or unfashionable opinion about serious or trivial matters, banter or humor, even if distasteful to some or painful to those subjected to it”, he still accrued enormous legal fees, lost his job, and has found himself unemployable, thanks to his criminal record.

Clearly, with new cases popping up on a regular basis, the precedent set by Justice Igor Judge in the case of Paul Chambers has not been taken to heart by British law enforcement. Although the things that people say on Twitter is not always right, there is not always a legitimate reason to believe that anyone’s safety is threatened. Playing moral police to social media will give law enforcement a tough road to continue on, and one that is unlikely to be met without censure by those who believe in free speech.

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