Tuesday 20th of March 2018 was a truly dark day for freedom of speech in the UK. YouTube comedian Mark Meechan, known as ‘Count Dankula’ on the site, was convicted for violating the UK Communications Act, and now awaits sentencing.
His crime? Making a joke.
In April 2016, the Scot released a video on his channel, in which he taught his girlfriend’s pug to raise its paw every time he said, ‘Seig Heil’, and become alert every time he said, “gas the jews”.
It was a joke. Certainly, one that many people would find offensive, as has become apparent, but also one that many found very funny, as can be seen from the number of shares the video has gained. Meechan maintains that the joke was merely intended to irritate his girlfriend, who in turn solely viewed the joke as representative of his humour.
Meechan was tried, not by a jury, but by a judge, Sheriff Derek O’Carroll, who took it upon himself to ignore all context surrounding the video, ignore all character references in the case, and focus on select phrases taken out of context.
O’Carroll found Meechan guilty of committing a hate crime, by way of posting a video that was grossly offensive. Since then, there has been a public outcry, with public figures such as comedians Ricky Gervais and Jonathan Pie speaking out, and Conservative MP Philip Davies calling for a debate on freedom of speech.
To call the joke ‘grossly offensive’ would be understandable, perhaps even to be expected. But to then treat it as worthy of a trial, and sentencing that could even go as far as a prison sentence is laughable; or it would be, if it wasn’t so concerning.
Even beyond the injustice of Meechan’s treatment, the trial sets a dangerous precedent which may well lead to any risqué comedian facing jail time for their material simply because someone was offended by it.
As Ricky Gervais said on twitter: “If you don’t believe in a person’s right to say things that you might find ‘grossly offensive’, then you don’t believe in Freedom of Speech.”
Meechan is due to be sentenced on April the 23rd.