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UK Cops Have Decided Impolite Online Speech Is Worth A Visit From An Officer

If you're not a resident of the UK, thank the First Amendment for not turning Twitter fights into police action. The UK's anti-hate speech laws have been extended to cover merely impolite speech -- at least according to UK law enforcement agencies who say ridiculous things like this. [h/t Amy Alkon]

In September, the official South Yorkshire Police account tweeted, “In addition to reporting hate crime, please report non-crime hate incidents, which can include things like offensive or insulting comments, online, in person or in writing. Hate will not be tolerated in South Yorkshire. Report it and put a stop to it.”

So, that's where things are at in the UK. That has led to cops showing up at people's doors to discuss online incivility. It's a heckler's veto with the weight of the UK government behind it -- something that can be abused to silence critics of people who can't handle criticism.

In this case, it was Irish comedy writer Graham Linehan being visited by the Norwich Police Department on a Sunday morning. He was apparently reported by outspoken trans rights activist Adrian Harrop. Linehan had posted tweets criticizing Harrop's televised debate with a woman who had paid for a billboard depicting the dictionary's definition of the word "woman," which bothered Harrop so much he complained and got that taken down as well.

Harrop was the reason Linehan was talking to police officers about tweets that didn't even violate the Twitter Rules. He had merely suggested Harrop's steamrolling of the billboard buyer during a televised debate might have been "male privilege." Another tweet alleged Harrop had threatened women and doxxed them for not being friendly enough to his cause. This is the tweet Harrop admits bothered him so much he needed to call the police. This is the disturbing, but ultimately useless, outcome of Harrop's decision.

After explaining to Linehan why he was there, the police officer—whom Linehan says was polite and friendly—asked Linehan if he would stop engaging with Harrop. Linehan told him he had no intention of stopping, the officer left, and Linehan immediately tweeted about what had just happened. The whole episode, he says, took about 15 minutes, and the police never told him which tweet Harrop found so offensive.

The country's laws say police can do this. So, naturally, they are doing this, even though it appears to be a massive waste of resources. This one ended rather quickly, with no violence or threats emanating from those sent to restore the internet's civility. But not every interaction will end this way. Some may end in criminal charges. Some may end with deployments of force. The UK government might think complaints like these will be handled civilly by public servants with the power to deploy deadly force, but that's a big assumption when the underlying "crime" is incivility. Confusion and/or hostility from people being accosted by law enforcement for being a bit too extreme online is probably a normal reaction. Police officers tend not to handle either of these emotions very well.

And there's this, which is the Norwich PD's official response to talking to a bathrobe-clad Linehan on a Sunday morning about tweets that wouldn't even ruffle Twitter's TOS feathers:

“Whilst we recognise that there is Freedom of Speech in the UK, it is important that the use of Social Media respects diversity and takes into consideration the feelings of others.”

You can't recognize free speech while still insisting everyone has to be nice to everyone else while online. You can hope that's what will happen, but you can't demand this of the general population. Unless you're in the UK, in which case you can, because you don't really recognize free speech and should probably remove that phrase from the government's collective vocabulary.

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