A UK Twitter user with few followers was sentenced to 150 hours of community service for an anti-military tweet deemed “grossly offensive” by a court. The sentence highlights fundamental differences in online speech protections in the UK and U.S. at a time when both countries are considering new legislative efforts to combat a global rise in misinformation and other potentially harmful content.
The drunken tweet in question was written by 36-year-old Glassgow native Joseph Kelly in response to media coverage of Captain Sir Tom Moore, an elderly British Army officer who died in February. Kelly tweeted out, “the only good Brit soldier is a deed one, burn auld fella buuuuurn” the day after Moore’s death. Kelly deleted the tweet about twenty minutes after he sent it, but it was too late. A Lanark Sheriff determined it violated UK speech laws.
“It’s important for other people to realise [sic] how quickly things can get out of control,” Sheriff Adrian Cottam said, according to The National. “You are a good example of that, not having many followers.”
Moore had gained international internet fame in 2020 for walking 100 laps around his garden on his 100th birthday to raise money for healthcare workers and the UK’s National Health Service. He helped raise around £32.8 million ($US43 ($60) million), received knighthood from the queen, and was seen by many in the UK and elsewhere as an inoffensive, pandemic-era hero.
Section 127 of the UK’s Communications Act, passed in 2003, prohibits people from spreading content that’s deemed “grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character,” via a public electronic communications network. Statistics reviewed by The Verge reveal hundreds of successful prosecutions related to Section 127 every year since it was first introduced, though the vast majority don’t result in jail time. In this case, the Lanark Sheriff (a legal position that performs a role similar to a judge in the U.S.) apparently wanted to make an example out of Kelly.
Though it’s unclear exactly how many followers Kelly had at the time, his attorney described it as just a “handful.” Kelly’s attorney claims his client was drunk when he sent the tweet and was “struggling emotionally.” Kelly now faces 150 hours of unpaid work and 18 hours of counseling.
Advocates At Odds With U.K.’s Speech Laws
Section 127 has come under criticism from digital rights groups and speech advocates who claim it’s outdated and overly broad in scope. In a report, UK-based Big Brother Watch argues Section 127 actually evolved from earlier legislation aimed at limiting abuse towards telephone operators. By applying that same language to social media users, the group argues, the law potentially criminalizes a far larger breadth of speech.
“It is wrong to assume that legislators in the late 1980s could have predicted or even imagined with any degree of accuracy the change that social media has made to the way we communicate,” the group writes. “If these policy recommendations [reforming Section 127 ]are not achieved, then it is almost inevitable that there will be further individuals who are arrested, charged and prosecuted unnecessarily under these laws.”
If you think the UK’s current speech laws seem harsh, it’s worth noting they might become even more punitive under the UK’s upcoming Online Safety Bill. That legislation is intended to create new rules forcing tech companies to beef up regulation of supposedly harmful content (a term critics claim is dangerously vague) and would apply to the majority of websites where users can post original content and interact with each other. That includes giant platforms like Facebook and Twitter but could also wrap up smaller, more niche communities. Senior managers at these companies could, under the legislation, face criminal charges, or even jail time if they ignore the government’s recommendations.