The Arrest of Matthew Woods & What It Means For Free Speech

The news and public have lately been gripped by the disappearance of five-year-old April Jones from her hometown of Machynlleth, Wales. Amidst reports of Mark Bridger being arrested on charges of her murder was the story that 19-year-old Matthew Woods has been arrested and sentenced to 12 weeks’ prison time for “offensive” messages posted on Facebook.

Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 states that it is a crime to send messages that are “grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character” or are “intended to cause annoyance, inconvenience or needless anxiety”. In other words, the confusing and subjective issue of cyber-bullying has, for nigh on a decade, had bestowed upon it its own set of rules and regulations that try and ascertain when messages or jokes have gone too far. There’s a problem though: the offensiveness of anything is purely subjective. While we can all agree that messages that aim to incite violence or hatred towards another person or group should be punished, the difference is that these messages are expressly posted to cause harm or aggravation physically, whereas the crime committed by Woods highlights that people have different opinions on humour and what crosses the boundaries.

As society has become more liberal in recent decades, comedy that pushes the boundaries has become more prominent. I do not suppose that my former classmates making endless dead baby jokes should have been locked up for their tasteless sense of humour; these people did not kill babies or want to kill babies or even find it funny when babies died. The world of humour somehow exists almost as an entity to itself, where we can use laughter to try to make light of a situation or to try to overcome the pain of what it causes. While there are groups that campaign against Family Guy and its creator Seth MacFarlane, there are millions more who enjoy his comedy, regardless of how insensitive or offensive it may be. And from this we can see that comments are not all equal. For instance, a comment of ill taste directed to a particular audience, whether that be a friend or a room full of paying customers to a comedy club, is one thing, and that same comment delivered to the mother of April Jones is something else entirely. The former is trying to get a laugh out of people, the latter is, as the Communications Act states, “intended to cause annoyance”. It is the latter that is worthy of punishment.

The arrest and sentence of Matthew Woods raises the issue of just how much of a right to free speech we really have. Woods’ posts were made on his Facebook page, rather than an email sent directly to the family of April. It is therefore the cyber equivalent of a remark made to no one in particular, or a close friend, or a room full of paying attendees, rather than knocking on Jones’ mother’s door to make crude jokes. So if sentences can be handed out for that, should they not also be handed out to people making comments in ill taste in a setting outside of cyberspace?

There is no denying that Woods’ comments were insensitive, but this sentence has drawn a line in the sand that says “It’s ok to make these comments to your acquaintances, in a book, in a pub, on stage, in songs, but not online.” In a democratic society such as ours, it isn’t possible to live a life with no offence received. Whether it’s someone else’s faith, actions, language or humour, we can be offended by anything. This begs the question, “How can subjectivity be governed?” Typically the argument is simple: If you don’t like something, ignore it. Don’t buy the albums you don’t like, don’t go to the place of worship of a religion you don’t like, and don’t see the comedian that offends you. For the Internet, it’s as simple as don’t visit the websites with content you find offensive.

Indeed, Woods was apparently inspired to write his posts after visiting Sickipedia, a site that describes itself as “almost certainly the best online sick joke database in the world”. The sentence handed to Woods should surely extend to arresting the owners of the website too, as well as all the people involved in the offensive and depraved world of pornography, not to mention the X-Factor judges for relentlessly producing music that offends the ears and minds of all sane people.

Once we start to regulate subjective things like being offended, we must ask what next. Will it be as acceptable to be arrested for private emails between like-minded people if they contain “inappropriate” content? Will it be considered a hate crime to criticise another religion? Ultimately what needs to be remembered is that Woods made comments that were insensitive and sick, but not criminal in nature. There were no threats; he was not responsible for the girl’s disappearance, nor did he harm or abuse her. He did not make the comments directly to the family. The efforts of law enforcement should be focused on the person or people who are responsible for her disappearance or any harm caused to her.

Steve Hughes can have the last word on the subject of offence:

Easily Offended Then Watch This by stevanhogg