MEP: Wearing an offensive T-shirt should not lead to prison
by Chris Davies
Even offensive idiots have the right to freedom of expression and the fact that many people may be upset by them is no justification for their suppression, writes MEP
Within hours of the killing of two decent, brave, young policewomen in Manchester, a specimen of human low-life was strutting around the streets wearing a T-shirt daubed with the words 'One less pig, perfect justice', and 'killacopforfun.com.haha'.
It did not take long for Barry Thew from Radcliffe, a man with a string of convictions for various offences, to be picked up by the police. Given the strength of the public revulsion about the murders they probably did him a favour by taking him off the streets. Last week he admitted to a Section 4A Public Order Offence and was sentenced to four months imprisonment at Minshull Street Court, Manchester, with another four months added for breach of the requirements of a previous suspended sentence.
The police described his action as "morally reprehensible"' and it was. It might also be described as offensive and vile. But to express views that are morally reprehensible should not be grounds for conviction of any offence, even if the sentence were not to be imprisonment but only a mild community service order. Even offensive idiots must have the right to express their views. The fact that many people may be upset by them is no justification for their suppression.
Context can matter. Germany bans the display of Nazi regalia and its right to do so faces no serious challenge. But interpretation of the law should always favour freedom over suppression and the Thew judgement goes far in the opposite direction. There is a danger that it has moved the goalposts. Given the current public mood, would someone be arrested if they were to wear a T-shirt claiming that 'Jimmy Savile was a nice man'?
Making a judgement is not easy. Even the European Convention on Human Rights accepts that it is difficult to draw the line. Article 10 makes clear that freedom of expression may be subject to restrictions that are "necessary in a democratic society". These may include the protection not only of public safety and prevention of disorder but also the protection of morals.
Comment is one thing, incitement is quite another. I would defend were I able the right of someone to declare "I'm glad that Chris Davies is dead". I would object very strongly to a call to "Go out and kill Chris Davies". I do not imagine that Thew is a pillar of society or a campaigner for human rights. I assume rather that he is a deeply unpleasant individual, but his arrest and imprisonment diminishes Britain's moral authority in the world.
In recent months many people in the liberal west have condemned the treatment of the Pussy Riot protesters in Russia. Their brief demonstration in Moscow cathedral led to them being judged guilty of morally reprehensible behaviour and of a public order offence. Their imprisonment sparked denunciations of the Russian justice system and of its lack of independence from political interference.
You can be sure that Russian diplomats will have noted the Thew case. "Mr President," they will advise, "when next you are criticised by British spokesmen, remind them that in their country you can be imprisoned for wearing the wrong T- shirt."
Chris Davies is Liberal Democrat MEP for the North West of England