Scotsman Jailed 8 Months For Facebook Comments

In Scotland, posting stupid things on Facebook is a "hate crime" punishable by serious jail time.

In Scotland, posting stupid things on Facebook is a “hate crime” punishable by serious jail time.

BBC (“Internet bigot Stephen Birrell jailed for eight months“):

A man who posted sectarian comments on a Facebook page called “Neil Lennon Should be Banned” has been jailed for eight months. Stephen Birrell, 28, from Glasgow, admitted posting the religiously prejudiced abuse earlier this year.

Sheriff Bill Totten said what Birrell had done was a hate crime which would not be tolerated by “the right thinking people of Glasgow and Scotland”. He said he wanted to send out “a clear message to deter others”.

[…]

Birrell posted sectarian comments about Catholics and Celtic fans between 28 February and 8 March, just days after being released early from a 12-month jail sentence. On 1 March, two days before the Old Firm match, Birrell posted: “Hope they (Celtic fans) all die. Simple. Catholic scumbags ha ha.” On 4 March, the day after the game, he wrote: “Proud to hate Fenian tattie farmers. Simple ha ha.” Four days later Birrell posted: “They’re all ploughing the fields the dirty scumbags.” He also posted abuse directed at the Pope.

[…]

[Sheriff Totten] also told Birrell that there was “no place in our modern society” for the use of the internet to spread or support abuse or to target people.

Birrell was banned from attending all regulated football matches in the UK for five years.The postings made derogatory references to Celtic manager Neil Lennon and also included remarks about Catholicism.

In a posting titled “Stephen Birrell’s Conviction Shames Scotland,” Alex Massie observes, “Scotland now imprisons people for the crime of disliking other people and making that dislike apparent in any kind of public forum. This is a shameful moment that demeans the country far more plainly than anything said, sung or written at or about any damn football match.”

As to Birrell’s comments:

This is hardly edifying stuff or evidence of a cultured mind. But we need not like, far less admire, Mr Birrell to observe that he issued no threats here. Nor did he encourage anyone else to threaten anyone else or commit an act of violence. All he has done is express distaste for Celtic supporters in general and Roman Catholics in particular. We might well, indeed should, think less of him for this but even if these postings may be said to be religiously and racially motivated they are still, in the end, only opinions. And expressing these kinds of opinions in Scotland now risks a spell in prison.

[…]

The authorities may believe Mr Birrell is guilty of a “hate crime”; I suggest he’s guilty of a thought crime. The former is distasteful, the latter appalling. It is appalling because it abolishes a standard that’s generally been thought a mark of progress and even civilisation: we may not approve of what you do or say but disapproval is not a strong enough standard to justify prohibiting those thoughts or words. That no longer applies in Scotland.

[…]

Doubtless this will be disputed by those who see only the smaller picture (jailing “bigots”) while tutting that those of us more concerned by the wider implications of this dreadful process are out-of-touch elitists, living lives untouched by the kind of witless bigotry that’s said to scar too many “communities”. Perhaps so. But resisting the state’s attempts to straighten the crooked timber of humanity to its own preferred shape is a worthy cause, especially when those efforts involve policing what you or I or anyone else may say or think or write even when those conversations or thoughts carry no threat and only, instead, offend someone else’s feelings.

You may certainly be offended by what Mr Birrell wrote. You may find it vile. But if you lived in a civilised country that would not be enough to demand his imprisonment, far less expect that demand to be met.

That’s exactly right.

As noted during the Terry Jones affair, the UK, Canada, and most of Continental Europe have many more restrictions on free speech than we do in America. Here, aside from incitement of violence and defamation of character, both of which are narrowly defined, there is virtually no limit on the content of speech–only the time, place, and manner in which it is delivered. In most of those societies, espousal of support for Nazism and other extremist groups is as punishable offense. While I don’t agree with that, it’s at least more understandable than going after nitwits who post stupid things on Facebook.

The Stephen Birrells of the world are nuisances of the sort that those of us who spend a lot of time on the Internet encounter constantly. At OTB, we tend to ban the most insipid of them–most of whom have the good sense to hide behind a pseudonym. Frankly, Birrell is doing the world a favor by posting under his name and photo so that we can see him coming.

FILED UNDER: Europe, Law and the Courts, World Politics, , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Example No. 3,245,435 of why its a good thing to have a written Bill of Rights and a judiciary that enforces it.

  2. superdestroyer says:

    As the U.S. becomes a one party state dominated by do-gooder progressives, it will only be a matter of time before the progressives find a “compelling interest” to regulate speech on the internet and in the public sphere.

  3. Racehorse says:

    I too am concerned about the tone of reactions to speech that is considered “incorrect”: the Don Imus affair, Trent Lott’s statement about Thurmond (only a few even remembered what the deal was about), and the latest Hank Williams Jr. craziness. Consider that there are increasing proposals to reign in talk radio, next will be the internet. There was a time long ago when people would just simply disagree and give their viewpoints; there was a mutual respect of give and take. No calls for someone to be fired, punished, impeached, or arrested. When they came up with the Bill of Rights, they knew that there would always be some crazy things going on.

  4. TheColourfield says:

    Don’t know the whole story on Birrell but Lennon has been sent letter bombs and was attacked at a match. All for the simple fact he is a Northern Irish Catholic. Maybe they’re related to those incidents.

  5. Moosebreath says:

    “Example No. 3,245,435 of why its a good thing to have a written Bill of Rights and a judiciary that enforces it.”

    It can’t happen here. Or could it?

  6. @Moosebreath:

    Let’s take a look at that case you linked to:

    Anthony D. Elonis was an operations supervisor at Dorney Park and Wildwater Kingdom in 2010 when, in the space of two months, he lost his job, his wife left him, a court told him to stay away from her, and he was forced to move back home with his parents.

    Elonis took to venting his rage with threats on his Facebook page. His postings, often in the form of rap lyrics, do not make pleasant reading.

    Now a federal jury is going to decide whether Elonis’ postings rise to the level of a crime, or whether including disclaimers along with his rants gives him First Amendment protection. Testimony began Monday in U.S. District Court.

    About his wife, Elonis wrote: “Fold up your PFA [protection-from-abuse order] and put it in your pocket. Is it thick enough to stop a bullet?”

    About his former employer, he wrote: “Someone once told me that I was a firecracker. Nah, I’m a nuclear bomb and Dorney park just [expletive] with the timer.”

    After the FBI showed up, called in by Elonis’ former Dorney supervisor, he threatened to cut an agent’s throat.

    And he wrote this:

    “That’s it, I’ve had about enough

    I’m checking out and making a name for myself.

    Enough elementary schools in a ten mile radius to initiate the most heinous school shooting ever imagined.”

    Making terrorist threats, and specific threats against an estranged wife already under the protection of a Court Order, is far, far different from what Birrell was convicted of.

  7. PD Shaw says:

    Given that the British monarchs are subject to a religious test (can’t be Catholic), I’m surprised at the mixed message here.

  8. Tano says:

    @Racehorse:

    I too am concerned about the tone of reactions to speech that is considered “incorrect”:

    You fail to grasp the difference between putting someone in jail for their speech (using the coercive power of the state to take one’s liberty), and the condemnation, by private citizens in the marketplace of ideas, of the speech of others.

    If one citizens says something stupid and offensive, other citizens are free to condemn those remarks and to choose not to associate with the speaker. There is nothing wrong or hostile to liberty about that. An employer is perfectly within their rights to dismiss an employee who insults and demeans some of the customers or potential customers of the business. A political party is perfectly within its rights to dismiss a leader who offends some segment of the electorate that the party does not wish to insult.

    Throwing someone in jail, or some other judicial punishment, is a very different matter. It is these types of sanctions that our Constitution protects us from, not the private reactions of our fellow citizens.

  9. Franklin says:

    How am I going to know who the stupid people are if they aren’t allowed to say anything stupid?

  10. Rob in CT says:

    I think we do this about right here in the US.

    There will always be some fuzziness around what constitutes incitement to violence, of course, but as a general rule (as Franklin notes), I want dumb assholes to open their mouths and display such to the world. Then we can all point and mock/deride, as appropriate.

    See also: Superdestroyer.

  11. What the heck is a “Celtic supporter”? Fans of the basketball team? The world music genre? Rennaisance Faire attendees?

  12. Rob in CT says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    Football team, IIRC. Glasgow Celtic…

  13. MM says:

    @Racehorse: Please identify the government agency or agencies that arrested or prosecuted Imus, Lott and Williams for their speech.

  14. PD Shaw says:

    Oy, its soccer madness is it? From Wikipedia:

    The competition between the two clubs [Celtic and Rangers] has roots in more than just a simple sporting rivalry. It is infused with a series of complex disputes, sometimes centred on religion (Catholic and Protestant) and Northern Ireland-related politics (Loyalist and Republican). Another primary contributor to the intensity of the rivalry in the west of Scotland is that Rangers supporters are historically native Scots and Celtic supporters are historically Irish-Scots. While the confrontation between the two sets of supporters is often lablelled as ‘Sectarianism’, ‘Native-Immigrant tension’ is an equally accurate catalyst for hostility between the two teams’ supports in Scotland. Rangers’ traditional support was largely from the Protestant community, while Celtic’s was largely from those of Irish Roman Catholic backgrounds. One effect is that Scottish flags are rarer than might be expected amongst both sets of supporters; Celtic fans are more likely to wave the Irish tricolour while Rangers fans tend to wave the Union Flag.

  15. mantis says:

    I too am concerned about the tone of reactions to speech that is considered “incorrect”: the Don Imus affair,

    Imus’s employers were under no obligation, legal or otherwise, to continue to employ him.

    Trent Lott’s statement about Thurmond (only a few even remembered what the deal was about),

    I remember. Lott lamented that segregationist Thurmond was not elected president in 1948, saying the U.S. would have been better off if he had. Quoting:

    “When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We’re proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over the years, either.”

    Funny that a lot of Americans didn’t agree with Lott that the country would have been better off if we had stayed segregated. Lott was, however, terribly and unjustly punished by being re-elected four years later.

    and the latest Hank Williams Jr. craziness.

    Williams’s employers were under no obligation, legal or otherwise, to continue to employ him.

    So, you’ve got three public figures who made comments considered offensive by some, but I don’t see any government intervention to stop them, or anyone advocating such. It truly is Orwellian, isn’t it, this total lack of censorship?

    Consider that there are increasing proposals to reign in talk radio,

    Really? Increasing proposals? From whom, exactly?

    next will be the internet.

    Next there will be “increasing proposals” to “reign in” the internet? Do these only exist in your head as well?

    There was a time long ago when people would just simply disagree and give their viewpoints; there was a mutual respect of give and take. No calls for someone to be fired, punished, impeached, or arrested. When they came up with the Bill of Rights, they knew that there would always be some crazy things going on.

    The Bill of Rights doesn’t protect you from losing your job if you’re an idiot.

  16. John Burgess says:

    There’s a long history of sectarian violence in Glasgow, with many killed and more injured over the years. The violence frequently centers around soccer matches between Celtic (hard C, btw) fans (mostly Roman Catholic of Irish descent) and Rangers fans (mostly Protestant of Scottish descent). So, this is both sectarian AND ethnic.

    I’m sure the court is seeing this as a special case deserving of special treatment/punishment in order to avert repeat performances. Not in accord with an American’s understanding of freedom of speech, of course. Nor, given Massie’s retort, for some Brits.

    Whether this is closer to the fact that you can burn a cross in public–but not too close to the house of a Black–or to several European countries’ bans on any display of Nazi memorabilia I leave to the reader…

  17. PD Shaw says:

    I can see where Scotland passed a hate crimes law that aggravates a criminal offense if there is evidence of religious motivation, i.e. the sentence for the offense is increased. According to this report, the typical offenses are:

    Of the 441 charges proven, 386 (88%) were breach of the peace, 29 (7%) were in relation to assault charges [including police assault] and 13 (3%) were vandalism charges

    I don’t have a problem with “hate crimes” when used as an aggravator of a sentence for a given crime. This does not appear to be how it is being used, and I have to wonder if the court was wrong or if we don’t have the full story, or I don’t understand what a breach of peace is in the U.K.?

  18. legion says:

    [Sheriff Totten] also told Birrell that there was “no place in our modern society” for the use of the internet to spread or support abuse or to target people.

    Well, we’re all f*cked now…

  19. PD Shaw says:

    To answer my own question, it looks like he pled guilty to breach of peace to get a reduced sentence. The notion that the internet is a public place is an odd one.

  20. TheColourfield says:

    Soft “c” on Celtic by they way. No ‘s” either.

    /obviously a fan

  21. An Interested Party says:

    As the U.S. becomes a one party state dominated by do-gooder progressives, it will only be a matter of time before the progressives find a “compelling interest” to regulate speech on the internet and in the public sphere.

    A ridiculous statement supported with no facts and no evidence…of course, such is typical of superdestroyer…