It’s becoming a little tiresome having to defend obnoxious racists and the terminally stupid, but freedom of speech is freedom of speech and Britain is still slipping away from its commitment to the principle. As such, many who should be spending our time publicly condemning the dregs of society are instead defending them in court. The Associated Press reports that:
A British judge has jailed a woman whose racist tirade toward fellow subway riders went viral on YouTube.
Jacqueline Woodhouse, 42, boarded the subway drunk on the evening of Jan. 23 and began berating her fellow passengers with a profanity-filled, racist verbal assault.
A seven-minute video of it was uploaded to YouTube and viewed more than 200,000 times.
Judge Michael Snow sentenced Woodhouse to 21 weeks in jail on Tuesday in London, saying that anyone hearing her “grossly offensive” language would feel a “deep sense of shame.”
Woodhouse – who had turned herself in to police after the footage began to circulate – had pleaded guilty to one count of causing racially aggravated harassment, alarm or distress by using threatening, abusive or insulting words or behavior.
Let’s be clear: Jacqueline Woodhouse is a terrible human being by any civilized standard, and right-thinking people who watched the video of her xenophobic tirade when it was doing the rounds last year were quite rightly appalled by her behavior. They did not need the law to instruct them to be so.
But, contra the implications of Judge Michael Snow’s judgment, those who behave shamefully should not necessarily wind up in prison for it. For all her incivility, Woodhouse doesn’t actually do anything more than shout. Naturally, we can agree with the authorities that anyone hearing her ”grossly offensive” language would feel a “deep sense of shame,” but it’s a real jump to conclude that the consequence of this should be government-sanctioned incarceration. Indeed, if Britons generally ended up in jail for behaving shamefully, most main streets in most major towns would be empty on Friday and Saturday nights.
At a stretch, one might have understood if Woodhouse had been arrested for her vague promise to punch a fellow traveller in the face — although review of the tape would have rendered the threat hollow — or for her drunk and disorderly conduct. But she wasn’t. Instead, as is now usual in such cases in Britain, she was arrested and imprisoned for the dangerously vague crime of “racially aggravated, intentional harassment to cause alarm or distress.” As I argued recently on NRO, this is a grave mistake. One man’s alarm is another’s amusement and distress is in the mind of the beholder.
We cannot maintain a free society with rigorous speech protections if we allow such subjective judgements as “alarm” and “distress” to determine what is and what is not acceptable. This is why lines have traditionally been drawn at incitement to “violence” and, better still, at actual violence itself. Former Canadian MP Stockwell Day once wrote, “I believe in freedom of speech, but I believe we should also have the right to comment on freedom of speech.” The two propositions are not antagonistic. Jacqueline Woodhouse has been roundly condemned and was fired by her employer after the video of her behavior went viral. As is so often the case, the government need never have become involved at all.