A few months ago, a friend sent me a link to a YouTube video, in which a Scottish lad decided to prank his girlfriend by secretly teaching her pet pug Buddha to give a Nazi salute (or as close as a pug can possibly give a Nazi salute) when prompted with a command “Sieg Heil”. It was a rather juvenile performance, which also veered into tasteless when the pug was taught to react to the phrase “Gas the Jews”.
The prankster, 30-year old Mike Meechan was today convicted of a crime and faces up to six months in jail:
Sheriff Derek O’Carroll found him guilty of a charge under the Communications Act that he posted a video on social media and YouTube which was grossly offensive because it was “anti-semitic and racist in nature” and was aggravated by religious prejudice.
Sheriff O’Carroll told the court he did not believe Meechan had made the video only to annoy his girlfriend and ruled it was anti-Semitic.
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, this is the once Great Britain, the birthplace of the freedom of speech and other modern human and civil rights, convicting a man for being “grossly offensive”.
I don’t know the Airdrie Sheriff Court officer Derek O’Carroll but I know that his decision establishes a catastrophic precedent in the increasingly fashionable trend to wring out any meaning from the concept of freedom of speech by suppressing any expression that someone somewhere finds offensive.
Was video funny? Well, depends on your sense of humour; I found it repetitive and tedious. Was it grossly offensive? Most people would say the Holocaust “joke” aspect of it was. Should it matter? Nope. “Grossly offensive” is an aesthetic – and moral – judgment; it should never be the base of a criminal offence. As the comedian Ricky Gervais twitted today:
A man has been convicted in a UK court of making a joke that was deemed "grossly offensive". If you don't believe in a person's right to say things that you might find "grossly offensive", then you don't believe in Freedom of Speech.
— Ricky Gervais (@rickygervais) March 20, 2018
Where do we go from here?
Does the judgment mean that any humour involving Nazis is now considered racist, anti-Semitic, grossly offensive, and therefore criminal? If that’s the case, then comedies like “Hogan’s Heroes” or “Allo Allo”, not to mention countless other examples of theatre, TV and movie humour poking fun at Hitler and fascism are now outlawed (“Producers”, anyone?). Clearly, this is so absurd that it cannot be the case.
Does the judgment mean that the key element to be considered is the creator’s personal beliefs and his or her intent? The Sheriff has strongly implied that Meechan is an anti-Semite, which motivated him to perpetrate and record the prank. Maybe O’Carroll can read minds and peer into men’s souls, or maybe he does have access to some information I don’t, but nothing I have seen or read from or about Meechan suggests he holds any extreme beliefs. Meechan himself, as well as his girlfriend, deny he is anti-Semitic.
Does the judgment mean that expression becomes criminally grossly offensive only when it offends ethnic or religious groups? This seems to be the implication of His Sheiffness’s learned opinion:
In my view it is a reasonable conclusion that the video is grossly offensive. The description of the video as humorous is no magic wand. This court has taken the freedom of expression into consideration. But the right to freedom of expression also comes with responsibility… [Meehan is] quite obviously an intelligent and articulate man… [But] the accused knew that the material was offensive and knew why it was offensive. Despite that the accused made a video containing anti-Semitic content and he would have known it was grossly offensive to many Jewish people.
Does that mean that “The Gospel According to Jesus Queen of Heaven”, a play about transgender Jesus, is now illegal in Great Britain? If only O’Carroll was there when it was performed in Glasgow! What about “Preacher”, screening on Amazon Prime in the UK? (“The latest episode pushed the envelope far enough for the Christian right to take notice. It was essentially trolling them for the whole episode. It opened with a graphic sex scene in which Jesus was asked to put his finger up a woman’s bum, the birth of Jesus’s illegitimate child and the reveal that his direct (but heavily inbred) descendent is a simpleton named Humperdoo.”) Waiting with a bated breath.
Which brings me to my main point why I can’t take seriously Sheriff O’Carroll and his ilk trying to crush freedom of speech for the sake of sensitivity: double standards.
Imagine Mike Meechan’s girlfriend had a parrot instead of a pug, and to prank her, Meechan taught the parrot to screech “Kill the bourgeoisie” or “Exterminate the kulaks”. Can you imagine for even a tiniest fraction of a second that he would now be getting dragged through courts because his humour mocks the victims of communist genocide? Or what if he dressed up the pug in a tiny custom-made Red Army or KGB uniform and taught him to violently attack a peasant rag doll when prompted by commend like “Kill that Ukrainian nationalist” or “Power to the Soviets”. Permutations are endless, but the conclusion remains the same: communism murdered tens of millions of people yet it gets a free pass from the otherwise easily offended.
Is Meechan’s humour offensive? Yes. Does he deserve to go to jail? No. But if he achieved anything, Sheriff O’Carroll has just made a martyr to free speech of a Scottish yobbo. And the British law enforcement and justice system is creating new categories of criminals instead of dealing with the rapidly increasing numbers of real ones who are rampaging through the green and pleasant land.
P.S. Here is the offending video, before it gets completely banned: