Another person has received a criminal conviction for something they posted on a social media site. Matthew Woods received a 12 week prison sentence for posting a message about missing schoolgirl April Jones on his Facebook page. At 20 years old, Woods sits in the same young and foolish male demographic as Azhar Ahmed, @Rileyy_69 and Leo Traynor’s troll.
The media have refrained from reporting Wood’s comments. This is a good thing. The joke assumes the guilt of the person accused of April Jones’ murder, so reporting it would prejudice a trial. Media restraint also minimises any distress to April’s family, and denies the attention-seeker further opportunities to provoke.
However… The only reason this Woods has received any attention in the first place was because he has been hauled before a magistrate! Had he not been arrested and charged, the comment would have been lost in the obscurity of his Facebook timeline after a couple of days. The comment obviously violates Facebook Terms & Conditions, so he might have been banned from using the site. We might describe that as a contractual matter, not criminal. And he might have lost a lot of friends (both in the real sense and the Facebook sense). But this is a social sanction, not criminal.
It is surely the criminal prosecution itself that has made the case a national news story. Could it not be argued that the prosecution itself has exacerbated the damage? Apparently, Matthew Woods’ Facebook privacy settings were such that the message was not generally viewable to everyone. Did April’s family even knew about the comment, before the prosecution?
The issue of Woods’ privacy settings raises another interesting and slightly chilling point: it must have been his own ‘friends’ that reported him to the police! I appreciate that Facebook connections are not the same as real-life friendships, but this phenomenon nevertheless reminds me of those instances in history and literature where citizens spy on each other, and report deviance and ‘offence’ to the authorities.
It is also noteworthy that the actual content of Woods’ posting do not seem available to read anywhere – the closest approximation I can find is on the Slashdot forum, but I don’t know how reliable those comments are. As discussed above, it is probably right for the mainstream media not to repeat his ‘joke’. However, we should know what someone has said to warrant a conviction. Especially, as I suspect is the case here, the words do not meet the high bar for formal censorship and imprisonment, and we want to scrutinise the law. Do the words incite violence? Do they constitute harassment? I do not believe they do, but without the confirmed text, we cannot know either way for sure.
Some other points. First, the BBC reports that Matthew Woods was taken into custody “for his own safety”. This is a catch-all excuse which could be used to detain anyone for anything. Around the world, powerful interests can whip up an angry mob (ultra-nationalists, religious-fundamentalists, or pro-government militia) and cause the object of their ire to lose their liberty. I worry about the British police using the excuse over a speech act.
Second, if the police were right to detain Woods for his own protection, what does that say about the British public? We spent last month tut-tutting about the sensitive, angry mobs in the middle-east, eager to riot when someone offends them. Why do we not complain at the threat of vigilantism in the UK?
Finally, the conviction was for causing offence. The chairman of the magistrates explicitly handed down the maximum sentence he could, on the basis that what Woods said was “abhorrent”. Matthew Woods seems to have been sent to prison only because he has caused offence. That is a worrying precedent.
As with all such cases, it is important and necessary to make the distinction between defending the right to free speech, and making clear that the content of what a person has said is abhorrent and unpleasant. One is a statement of human rights; the other is a moral statement. It is not inconsistent to say that Matthew Woods should not have been convicted, while labelling him a pathetic, puerile attention-seeker in the same sentence.