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Monitoring and Criminalizing Online Speech, Social Media

Citizens, you have an obligation to remain silent. What you say online, once upon a time an arena of free speech, can and will be used against you.

Here are two creeping examples.

In the UK

Six British soldiers were killed in Afghanistan, what the Prime Minister called a “desperately sad day for our country.” A British teenager, Azhar Ahmed, went on Facebook to angrily object, saying innocent Afghans killed by British soldiers receive almost no attention from the media. He opined the UK’s soldiers in Afghanistan are guilty, their deaths deserved, and are therefore going to hell.

The following day Ahmed was charged with “a racially aggravated public order offense.” He was convicted “of sending a grossly offensive communication,” fined and sentenced to 240 hours of community service. The judge Ahmed’s opinions “beyond the pale of what’s tolerable in our society.”

The Independent newspaper noted that Ahmed “escaped jail partially because he quickly took down his unpleasant posting and tried to apologize to those he offended.” Apparently, says Glenn Greenwald at The Intercept, “heretics may be partially redeemed if they publicly renounce their heresies.”

Criminal cases for online political speech are now commonplace in the UK. Around 20,000 people in Britain have been investigated in the past three years for comments made online. The investigations have by no means been neutral, instead directed at the country’s Muslims for expressing political opinions critical of the state’s actions.

Wow, luckily this can’t ever happen in America… right? Oh wait, it just did.

In America

A man convicted in a fatal car crash and released early from prison on parole has ended up back behind bars after an Ohio judge and the victim’s family took issue with a post he made on Facebook.

Ryan Fye’s post included a photo of him making an obscene gesture and a message saying, “Prison didn’t break me. It MADE me.” Fye claims he was responding to a Facebook threat from someone unrelated to his case who said they “couldn’t wait to bump into” him and that prison ought to have made him tough enough to handle the encounter.

The message upset relatives of the man killed by Fye in the 2013 crash. A judge also found the Facebook posting disrespectful toward the family and concluded it violated parole sanctions imposed on Fye.

While typical terms of probation prohibit threats, intimidation, harassment, and retaliation against the victims, prosecution, judges, family of victims and so on, it is quite unclear that Fye’s Facebook posting is even directed at any such people, or that it is even a threat or act of intimidation. Many people might characterize it as boastful at worst.

Fye’s defense attorney said Fye didn’t violate probation or the law. “Committing a crime is a probation violation, not abiding by the rules is a probation violation. Mr. Fye didn’t do any of those things.” Fye is back in custody while he appeals the judge’s decision to lock him up.

Over a Facebook posting.

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Peter Van Buren writes about current events at blog. His book,Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent, is available now from Amazon

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Peter Van Buren

Peter Van Buren

Peter Van Buren has served with the Foreign Service for over 23 years. He received a Meritorious Honor Award for assistance to Americans following the Hanshin earthquake in Kobe, a Superior Honor Award for helping an American rape victim in Japan, and another award for work in the tsunami relief efforts in Thailand. Previous assignments include Taiwan, Japan, Korea, the UK and Hong Kong. He volunteered for Iraq service and was assigned to ePRT duty 2009-10. His tour extended past the withdrawal of the last combat troops.

Van Buren worked extensively with the military while overseeing evacuation planning in Japan and Korea. This experience included multiple field exercises, plus civil-military work in Seoul, Tokyo, Hawaii, and Sydney with allies from the UK, Australia, and elsewhere. The Marine Corps selected Van Buren to travel to Camp Lejeune in 2006 to participate in a field exercise that included simulated Iraqi conditions. Van Buren spent a year on the Hill in the Department of State’s Congressional Liaison Office.

Van Buren speaks Japanese, Chinese Mandarin, and some Korean (the book’s all in English, don’t worry). Born in New York City, he lives in Virginia with his spouse, two daughters, and a docile Rottweiler.

Though this is his first book, Peter’s commentary has been featured on TomDispatch, Salon, Huffington Post, The Nation, American Conservative Magazine, Mother Jones, Michael Moore.com, Le Monde, Daily Kos, Middle East Online, Guernica and others.

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