British Twitter user with few followers sentenced to 150 hours of community service for anti-military act tweet deemed “grossly offensiveby a court. The sentence highlights fundamental differences in online speech protections in the UK and US at a time when the two countries are considering new legislative efforts to combat a global increase disinformation and other potentially harmful content.
The drunken tweet in question was written by Glassgow native Joseph Kelly, 36, in response to media coverage of Captain Sir Tom Moore, an elderly British Army officer who died in February. Kelly tweeted, “the only good british soldier is an act, burn an old guy buuuuurn” the day after Moore died. Kelly deleted the tweet about twenty minutes after sending it, But it was too late. A Lanark Sheriff determined he was breaching UK speech laws.
“It is important that others realize [sic] how quickly things can get out of control,” Sheriff Adrian Cottam said, according to The National. “You’re a good example of that, not having a lot of followers.”
Moore had gained international fame on the Internet in 2020 for while 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 approximately £32.8 million ($43 million), received chivalry of the Queen, and was seen by many in the UK and elsewhere as a harmless hero of the pandemic era.
Section 127 UK Communications Actadopted in 2003, prohibits people from posting content judged “grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or threatening nature”, via a public electronic communication network. Statistics saw again by The Verge reveal hundreds of successful Section 127 lawsuits each year since its introduction, although the vast majority do not result in jail time. In this case, the Lanark Sheriff (a legal position that plays a role similar to a judge in the United States) apparently wanted to make Kelly an example.
While it’s unclear exactly how many followers Kelly had at the time, her the lawyer described it as just a “handful”. Kelly’s attorney claims his client was drunk when he sent the tweet and was “emotionally struggling”. Kelly now faces 150 hours of unpaid work and 18 hours of counseling.
Lawyers at odds with UK speech laws
Section 127 has come under fire from digital rights groups and speeches defenders who claim its outdated and overly broad. In one report, UK-based Big Brother Watch, says Section 127 actually evolved from earlier legislation aimed at limiting abuse of telephone operators. By applying that same language to social media users, the group argues, the law potentially criminalizes a much wider range of speech.
“It is wrong to assume that lawmakers in the late 1980s could have predicted or even imagined with any degree of accuracy the change that social media brought to the way we communicate,” the group writes. “If these policy recommendations [reforming Section 127 ]are not achieved, it is almost inevitable that more people will be arrested, charged and prosecuted unnecessarily under these laws”.
If you think the current UK speech laws seem harsh, it’s worth noting that they could become even more punitive under the next UK law. Online security bill. This legislation aims to create new rules forcing tech companies to tighten regulation of allegedly harmful content (a term according to critics is dangerously wave) and would apply to the majority of websites where users can post original content and interact with each other. This includes giant platforms like Facebook and Twitter, but could also encompass smaller, more specialized communities. The senior executives of these companies could, under the law, face criminal charges and even jail time if they ignore the government’s recommendations.