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Free the Count: is freedom of speech in crisis?

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Last week, a two-year journey that has surely been wracked with hellish emotions and nerves came to an end for YouTuber, Mark Meechan. Mr Meechan, whose YouTube name is Count Dankula, was officially declared guilty of communicating a ‘grossly offensive’ video by a Scottish Court. The video in question was uploaded to the site in April 2016 and shows Meechan teaching his girlfriend’s dog to respond to the phrases ‘Sieg Heil’ and ‘Gas the Jews.’ In the video, Meechan himself explains that “my girlfriend thinks the dog is very cute so I am going to teach it to be the “least cute thing in the world… a Nazi”.

The video was viewed more than three million times on YouTube. Although records show no complaints were made against the video, Mr Meechan has been found guilty and has been charged under Section 127 of the Communications Act of 2003. He will be sentenced on April 23rd. This decision has caused all sorts of buzz online and in the press, and rightly so.

The UK has long prided itself on its citizens’ rights to freedom of speech and expression. As early as the Statute of Treason of 1352, the citizenry of England were allowed to express their views, so long as they weren’t threatening the life of the King or the royal family. This was followed by similar declarations such as the Levellers Petition of 1647, and the Bill of Rights of 1689, and again in the development of Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park. The UK has a tradition of free speech, regardless of whether offense has been made, within the confines of the law, and membership of the UN Convention of Human Rights and the EU Convention of Human Rights protects this. Therefore, that a man can be arrested and tried for making a joke – admittedly one made in poor taste – is deeply concerning.

During the court proceeding, which was held without a jury present, Mr Meechan was accused of trying to stir up racial hatred, something the man vigorously denied. The context of the joke was deemed irrelevant by both the prosecutor and the judge who passed the decision, merely the words were enough for them to believe he wanted to incite hatred against Jews. This is despite Mr Meechan himself denying these accusations and continuously referring to the context of the video as well as previous material he has done, where he decries the tactics of anti-Semites. The decision of the judge in Scotland it can be argued flies in the face of the original intention of Section 127 which states: “Communications that are merely “grossly offensive, indecent, obscene or false” will be prosecuted only when it can be shown to be necessary and proportionate.” At no point did the judge say why imprisonment was proportionate for the joke made, Mr Meechan repeatedly stated that he did not believe in the Nazi rhetoric and was against anti-Semites, and yet the decision stood.

Comedians such as Ricky GervaisJonathan Pie and others have come to Mr Meechan’s defence, stating that arresting someone for making a joke is a terrible miscarriage of justice. Indeed, it has been pointed out that if Mr Meechan can be arrested, then perhaps John Cleese should be arrested for goose stepping live on television, that Prince Harry should be arrested for wearing a Swastika on his arm. This decision has set a terrifying precedent in the UK, that should alarm any decent citizen. The right to offend and the right to joke are rights that we take for granted in the UK and most of the Western World. A person can be offended, but that does not mean that the person doing the offending deserves to be arrested. A joke is not a hate crime, and consequently, the response to Mr Meechan’s joke, though it was done perhaps in bad taste, was not proportionate. That there are those who would argue that the judge’s decision was the correct one simply because Mr Meechan has received support from people such as Kate Hopkins and Tommy Robinson is alarming and should concern every free thinking British person.

The UK is a country that has gone to war to protect liberties that are now considered basic human rights, the UK has always led the way in protecting these rights, such as free speech that are necessary for a proper society to function. We cannot imprison people for making a simple joke and continue to claim supremacy over other nations such as North Korea. Especially when we have hate preachers banned in Pakistan allowed to come and speak at Mosques in the UK, or when people who have fought for Daesh are allowed to return to the UK to claim benefits.

Hopefully, this decision will serve as a wake-up call to all those who understand the need to defend freedom of speech.

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