A few days ago, police in Scotland made this promise:
Please be aware that we will continue to monitor comments on social media & any offensive comments will be investigated.
— Police Scotland (@policescotland) December 30, 2014
And John Stuart Mill cried out from his grave.
I would like to report that this represents little more than an idle threat, or, perhaps, that it is merely the product of a rogue and overzealous intern. But, alas, I cannot. As The Independent’s James Bloodworth noted this week, this is in fact rather typical. “Around 20,000 people in Britain have been investigated in the past three years for comments made online,” Bloodworth confirms, “with around 20 people a day being looked into by the forces of the law, according to figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.” Worse, some of these people have actually been imprisoned: among them, a “woman found guilty of a public order offence for saying that David Cameron had “’blood on his hands,’” a man named “Azhar Ahmed, who was prosecuted for an online post mocking the deaths of six British soldiers killed in Afghanistan,” and a young man named Liam Stacey who tweeted something unprintable at a top-flight soccer player and was incarcerated for two months in consequence.
They may soon be joined by another. As I write, a deliberately “edgy” columnist named Katie Hopkins is being “looked into” by police for having been a little unpleasant on the Internet. Taking to Twitter earlier this week, Hopkins offered a gratuitously crude criticism of an Ebola nurse, dismissively described the Scottish people as “sweaty little jocks,” and suggested (correctly in my view) that the country’s National Health Service “sucks.” These relatively mild provocations were enough to push the police into action. “We have received a number of complaints regarding remarks made on Twitter,” Detective Inspector Glyn Roberts told the press. “Inquiries are ongoing into the nature of these tweets and to establish any potential criminality.” Ominously, Roberts then sought to encourage les autres. “Police Scotland will thoroughly investigate any reports of offensive or criminal behaviour online,” he added. “Anyone found to be responsible will be robustly dealt with.”
You will note with horror the illiberal conflation of the word “offensive” and the word “criminal.”
That the civil authorities would consider that investigating Hopkins is an appropriate use of their power is extremely alarming. Once upon a time, the British government sought to export liberty; now, it seems, it is determined gradually to dismantle it. And yet, as ugly as the move is, it is by no means the worst part of this story. The worst part, per Bloodworth, is this:
Meanwhile, an online petition calling for Hopkins’ arrest has amassed over 22,000 signatures
In situations such as these, it is easy and tempting to blame the police for their excesses, and to contend with irritation that they should know better. And so, of course, they should. It is easy, too, to slam the British parliament for continuing to permit such behavior. And, of course, it should be so slammed. Nevertheless, the ugly truth here is that, like the Canadians and the Australians and the New Zealanders and pretty much every people in the world apart from the Americans, there is a significant contingent within the British electorate that believes that the state should punish people who utter words and sentiments that the majority dislikes. Of course the police are looking into the rude and the eccentric. Their employers want them to do exactly that, and there are no constitutional prohibitions to prevent them from doing so.
Cultures rot from the bottom up. In a democracy, the authorities come to reflect societal trends — both good and ill. How sad to see Adam Smith’s body decaying in the streets.
There are still 77 unsolved murders on Police Scotland’s books.