The problem with defending free speech is that you never get to defend it on exactly the territory you hoped for. Of course, one keeps one’s fingers crossed that the next defense of free speech will be mounted against an attempt to ban Areopagitica or burn all extant copies of A la recherché du temps perdu. Alas, events tend to turn out otherwise.
Which brings me to “Count Dankula.” He is neither John Milton nor the late Marcel Proust. Rather he is a self-described “sh**-poster” whose real name is Mark Meechan (30) — a man who gained a small following posting videos online for a small fanbase to enjoy. If his is the sort of humor that you enjoy, then it’s the sort of thing that you enjoy.
Then in 2016 the young Scot did something that got him into a very unenjoyable position. He posted a video on YouTube of his girlfriend’s pug dog. Apparently, Mark’s girlfriend was forever going on about how cute her pug dog was. In her absence, Mark thought it would be funny to turn the pug into what he described as “the least cute thing that I could think of — which is a Nazi.” Meechan then made of a video in which he showed his girlfriend’s pug dog watching videos of Adolf Hitler, raising his right paw (as in a “Sieg Heil” — get it?), and responding to the phrase “Do you want to gas the Jews?” Meechan/Dankula uploaded it to YouTube and presumably sat back looking forward to getting some dozens of “lols” from his fans. In case any viewers were under the misapprehension that he was hoping to turn the animal kingdom fully Nazi, one pug dog at a time, Meechan stated in the video that he wasn’t himself a Nazi but thought that what he had done was funny.
As I say, if that’s the sort of thing you like, it’s the sort of thing you like.
But the law in modern Britain — specifically modern Scotland — does not abide by this principle. Having solved all burglaries, muggings, rapes, and parking offenses in the nation, the Scottish police decided that it was necessary to arrest and charge Count Dankula. The authorities then chose to prosecute him.
At his trial in Airdrie Sherriff Court in Lanarkshire last month, Meechan was found guilty of posting “grossly offensive, anti-Semitic and racist material.” He pleaded not guilty but was convicted under the Communications Act in a crime that the court found was aggravated by “religious prejudice.”
Of course, readers — particularly American readers — might wonder what business the state has in any civilized and free country in deciding what is or is not “grossly offensive.” But there is modern Britain — and especially modern Scotland — for you. And after wrecking his life for two years, this morning the court handed down its sentence. It spared Count Dankula jail time, but chose to fine him £800.
Sheriff Derek O’Carroll said that while the right to freedom of speech was important, the law “necessarily places some limits on that right” in “all modern democratic countries”.
He added: “The video you posted, using a public communications network, was grossly offensive and contained menacing, anti-Semitic and racist material.
“You deliberately chose the Holocaust as the theme of the video.
“You purposely used the command ‘gas the Jews’ as the centrepiece of what you called the entire joke, surrounding the ‘gas the Jews’ centrepiece with Nazi imagery and the Sieg Heil command so there could be no doubt what historical events you were referring to.”
I suggest that after this victory it is now very important that the Lanarkshire constabulary, Sheriff Derek O’Carroll, and others now pursue other comedians who can be found to have made jokes which could be ruled “grossly offensive.” If they would like a head’s up, how about this “grossly offensive” joke which is still actually hosted on YouTube. It is one of the best one-liners ever, and comes from the late Graham Chapman. It is repeated here by his fellow Monty Python member Eric Idle.
Perhaps action can be taken forthwith?
Of course, Count Dankula isn’t Monty Python, Milton, or Proust. He’s not especially successful or famous (or at least he wasn’t until the police helped make him so) and so a lot of people will feel a desire to keep their handkerchiefs close to their noses on this one. Still, his case deserves acknowledgement and sympathy. What he has been put through is not the sort of thing that any genuinely free and democratic state should put any of its citizens through. But then Scotland today is a little less free than it was yesterday.
We’ll see how this works out for it. Perhaps Lanarkshire constabulary will have their way and clean this world up, one joke at a time. Or perhaps free expression — including the right to be crass and “grossly offensive” — will win the day. Judging by the fact that there have already been protests in defense of Count Dankula in Lanarkshire and London it would appear that the U.K.’s citizenry are not willing to hand over their freedoms to our joke-constabulary just yet.