On March 6, 2012, six British soldiers were killed in Afghanistan by a roadside explosive device, and a national ritual of mourning and rage ensued. Prime Minister David Cameron called it a “desperately sad day for our country.” A British teenager, Azhar Ahmed, observed the reaction for two days and then went to Facebook to angrily object that the innocent Afghans killed by British soldiers receive almost no attention from British media. He opined that the UK’s soldiers in Afghanistan are guilty, their deaths deserved, and are therefore going to hell:
The following day, Ahmed was arrested and “charged with a racially aggravated public order offense.” The police spokesman explained that “he didn’t make his point very well and that is why he has landed himself in bother.” The state proceeded to prosecute him, and in October of that year, he was convicted “of sending a grossly offensive communication,” fined and sentenced to 240 hours of community service.
As demonstrators demanded he be imprisoned, the judge who sentenced Ahmed pronounced his opinions “beyond the pale of what’s tolerable in our society,” ruling: “I’m satisfied that the message was grossly offensive.” The Independent‘s Jerome Taylor noted that he “escaped jail partially because he quickly took down his unpleasant posting and tried to apologize to those he offended.” Apparently, heretics may be partially redeemed if they publicly renounce their heresies.
Criminal cases for online political speech are now commonplace in the UK, notorious for its hostility to basic free speech and press rights. As The Independent‘s James Bloodworth reported last week, “around 20,000 people in Britain have been investigated in the past three years for comments made online.”
But the persecution is by no means viewpoint-neutral. It instead is overwhelmingly directed at the country’s Muslims for expressing political opinions critical of the state’s actions.
To put it mildly, not all online “hate speech” or advocacy of violence is treated equally. It is, for instance, extremely difficult to imagine that Facebook users who sanction violence by the UK in Iraq and Afghanistan, or who spew anti-Muslim animus, or who call for and celebrate the deaths of Gazans, would be similarly prosecuted. In both the UK and Europe generally, cases are occasionally brought for right-wing “hate speech” (the above warning from Scotland’s police was issued after a polemicist posted repellent jokes on Twitter about Ebola patients). But the proposed punishments for such advocacy are rarely more than symbolic: trivial fines and the like. The real punishment is meted out overwhelmingly against Muslim dissidents and critics of the West.
In sum, this is not merely an attack on free speech but on specific ideas. Writing about Ahmed’s case in The Guardian, Richard Seymour described him as “the latest victim of a concerted effort to redefine racism as ‘anything that could conceivably offend white people.'”
The authoritarian impulses that drove Ahmed’s prosecution are increasingly asserting themselves. In November, a 22-year-old Iraqi-British woman, Alaa Abdullah Esayed, was arrested and charged with using Twitter to promote terrorism. In the words of the police, she stands “accused of providing a service that enabled others ‘to obtain, read, listen to or look at a terrorist publication, by providing links to speeches and other propaganda.'” When she appeared in court last month, the prosecutor emphasized that she is “accused of uploading 45,600 tweets in just under a year encouraging children to use weapons and embrace extremism.” Among her transgressions is “post[ing] pictures of corpses felled in battle and poems entitled ‘Mother of the Martyr.'” She faces years in prison, and the judge barred her from using Twitter pending her trial.
Last month in the UK, a 35-year-old mother of six, Runa Khan, was sentenced to five years in prison for “promoting terrorism on Facebook.” The judge, Peter Birts QC (pictured, right), “heard police had found photos of Khan’s children holding guns and swords” and “said the ‘only fair interpretation’ of those pictures was that Khan had intended to radicalize others.” The prosecution overwhelmingly focused on her political views, including the fact that she “took pictures of her toddler son holding a toy gun and encouraged parents of children as young as two to put them on the path to jihad.” She “appeared to glorify the murder of [British soldier] Lee Rigby” by “shar[ing] a post by another user which complained about Muslims who condemned the killing.” In imposing Khan’s sentence, Judge Brits pronounced her an “avowed fundamentalist Islamist holding radical and extreme beliefs.”
Khan will now spend the next five years in prison because a very white, very British, very establishment-loyal jurist harbors contempt for her political views, her religious values, and particularly her attempts to teach them to her children. This is part of what he told her when removing her from her children and consigning her to a cage until February, 2020:
You hold to an ideology which espouses jihad as an essential part of the Islamist obligation. . . . I sentence you not for your beliefs, abhorrent though they are to all civilized people, but for your actions in disseminating terrorist material with the clear intention of radicalizing others. . . . Your purpose was to encourage and promote your particular brand of violent fundamentalism. . . . You were deeply committed to radicalizing others, including very young children, into violent jihadist extremism. . . . You appear to have no insight into the effect of radicalizing your children, having selfishly placed your own ideology and beliefs above their welfare in your priorities.
In other words: you’re allowed, by our generosity, to mentally harbor your vile opinions. But if you try to publicly advocate them on Facebook, convince others to believe them, or teach them to your children, then you are a dangerous criminal who belongs in prison.
Needless to say, this judge would never lecture, let alone sentence, anyone for “holding to an ideology” that advocates violence by the British government in Muslim countries, nor parents who indoctrinate their children to join the British military, nor those who led that country to invade and destroy Iraq in an aggressive war. To understand the point, one need not equate these views or view some as better than others. The point is that this is the state punishing expression of some viewpoints while sanctioning others. This is about criminalizing specific views anathema to the government’s policies, outlawing particular value systems.
This eagerness to criminalize political speech becomes more compelling as social media vests ordinary individuals with greater autonomy to disseminate news as well as their views. No longer dependent on corporate media institutions acting as Responsible Gatekeepers of Tolerable Opinions, individuals all over the world are now able to curate their own news and create their own powerful opinion platforms.
The democratizing effects on political discourse have long been heralded as a future potential of the internet, but it is now a promise finally being fulfilled, and it is scaring entrenched political and media institutions all over the world. Many westerners received news about daily developments in the “Arab Spring” from previously unknown Arab citizens using Twitter and Facebook rather than from large establishment media outlets. That significantly increased sympathy for the protesters, now more humanized than ever before, at the expense of the U.S.-supported tyrannies (long protected by the west’s media outlets) which they were attempting to uproot.
Perhaps the most potent example yet was the most recent Israeli attack on Gaza, where, for the first time, the full brutality and savagery of Israeli aggression was publicly conveyed. That’s because, despite their poverty, many ordinary Gazans now have video cameras on their cellphones and a Twitter account, which meant they were regularly uploading horrific video of Israeli bombs and tanks destroying hospitals, schools and apartment buildings, which in turn prevented Western journalists from ignoring or diluting the civilian carnage.
Transferring information control from large media outlets to individual Gazans radically altered how that attack was covered and, thereafter, how Israel was perceived around the world. That is a genuinely fundamental change.
Like all technologies that threaten to subvert prevailing authority, social media–along with the Internet generally–is being increasingly targeted with police measures of control, repression and punishment. Just like mass surveillance does to the Internet, this is all part of an effort to convert these new technologies from a potential tool of subversion into one that further bolsters governing power factions.
It is thus unsurprising that the national police of Scotland posted the above-displayed warning last week. That warning tweet is starker and more honest than the tone typically used to convey such messages, but it perfectly captures the mindset of states throughout the west about the “dangers” of social media and the repressive steps they are now taking to combat them. As Jillian York of the Electronic Frontier Foundation documented this week, legal suppression of online speech is spreading throughout the west and democracies worldwide.
Despite frequent national boasting of free speech protections, the U.S. has joined, and sometimes led, the trend to monitor and criminalize online political speech. The DOJ in 2011 prosecuted a 24-year-old Pakistani resident of the United States, Jubair Ahmad, on terrorism charges for uploading a 5-minute video to YouTube featuring photographs of Abu Ghraib abuses, video of American armored trucks exploding, and prayer messages about “jihad” from the leader of a designated terror group; he was convicted and sent to prison for 12 years. The same year, the DOJ indicted a 22-year-old Penn State student for, among other things, posting justifications of attacks on the U.S. to a “jihadi forum”; the speech offender, Emerson Winfield Begolly, was sentenced to 8 1/2 years in prison.
Countless post-9/11 prosecutions for “material support of terrorism” are centrally based on political views expressed by the (almost always young and Muslim) defendants, who are often “anticipatorily prosecuted” for expression of ideas political officials find threatening. There is no doubt that the U.S. government has even used political speech as a significant factor in placing individuals on its “kill list” and then ending their life, including the U.S.-born preacher Anwar Awlaki (targeted with death before the attempted Christmas Day bombing over Detroit which was later used to justify Awlaki’s killing). Anti-American views by Muslims–meaning opposition to U.S. aggression and violence–are officially viewed as evidence of terrorist propensity, which is why this passage, flagged by the ACLU-Massachusetts’ Kade Crockford, appeared in a CNN article yesterday about the trial of Boston Marathon bombing defendant Dzhokhar Tsarnaev:
As is true for all War on Terror abuses, this American version of criminalizing speech is spreading far beyond its original application, and is increasingly applied domestically. Anti-police messages are now being subjected to the same criminalizing treatment as anti-military and anti-U.S.-foreign-policy ideas.
Last month in western Massachusetts, police issued a criminal summons to 27-year-old Charles DiRosa for posting an “anti-police Facebook post.” His “crime” was the posting of a very simple message on his Facebook account, which simply quoted the phrase posted on Facebook by Ismaaiyl Abdullah Brinsley on the day he killed two NYPD officers.
DiRosa’s Facebook post led local police to investigate and confirm his identity. The police then announced on their own Facebook page that DiRosa was the author of the offending post and was being summoned on criminal charges. For good measure, they also posted two of his pictures:
There’s no question that DiRosa’s “anti-police” post is pure free speech, constitutionally protected. Even if one wants to construe it as a recommendation to others that they kill police officers, the First Amendment bars any prosecution. As the Supreme Court ruled 45 years ago in Brandenburg v. Ohio, “the constitutional guarantees of free speech and free press do not permit a State to forbid or proscribe advocacy of the use of force” (emphasis added). Writing in The Washington Post, Law Professor Eugene Volokh makes the same point. Brandenburg overturned the conviction of a KKK member for publicly threatening political officials with violence, and invalidated an Ohio law that made it a crime to “advocate . . . the duty, necessity, or propriety of crime, sabotage, violence, or unlawful methods of terrorism as a means of accomplishing industrial or political reform.”
It’s unsurprising that in a country borne of violent revolution against its monarch, the Constitution expressly guarantees the right to this advocacy, even if it includes justifications for violence. You’re allowed to argue that the state has become so corrupt and dangerous that violent revolution is merited. You’re allowed to argue that, in light of police abuse, killing police officers is a legitimate form of self-defense or is otherwise just. You’re allowed to argue that decades of U.S. violence against innocent Muslims ethically justifies, or even obligates, Muslims to bring violence back to the U.S. as the only means of stopping that aggression.
Under the most basic free speech principles, nobody can be prosecuted for expressing those views. These principles reflect a vital recognition: empowering officials to criminalize the expression of those views is far more dangerous than the views themselves.
But even if you’re someone inclined to cheer when endorsement of violence is outlawed, there’s no denying that application of this suppression is completely selective. As Andrew Meyer adeptly documented this week, a former Connecticut police officer, Doug Humphrey, used his Facebook account to issue a much more direct and disturbing threat against DiRosa, yet the ex-officer has not been charged with anything:
Meyer notes that – in the wake of increasing controversy over racist and abusive police misconduct – “police departments throughout the United States are arresting people for making alleged threats against officers online with little, if any, investigation,” and lists numerous prosecutions as dubious as the DiRosa case, if not more so. DiRosa himself was formally summoned within hours of posting his Facebook message. Yet here is a case of a former police officer urging his fellow officers to kill a specific person, with the person’s picture posted, and there have been no charges filed. As Meyer argues, “compared to the others who were either arrested or threatened with arrest, [the ex-officer’s] comment was the one that came closest to a threat, so not taking action will further prove that cops are above the law.”
Like the law generally, criminalizing online speech is reserved only for certain kinds of people (those with the least power) and certain kinds of views (the most marginalized and oppositional). Those who serve the most powerful factions or who endorse their orthodoxies are generally exempt. For that reason, these trends in criminalizing online speech are not so much an abstract attack on free speech generally, but worse, are an attempt to suppress particular ideas and particular kinds of people from engaging in effective persuasion and political activism.
Photo: UK protest: Anna Gowthorpe/Press Association/AP; Birts: Gary Lee/Photoshot