Is free speech dead? UK court convicts teenager for posting “disrespectful” message on Facebook

On March 6, 2012 six British soldiers were killed in the Lashkar Gah area of Afghanistan by an improvised explosive device (IED). Two days after this incident Azhar Ahmed — a 19 year old from West Yorkshire — posted the message “all soldiers should die and go to hell” on Facebook. It isn’t entirely clear if Ahmed posted the message in relation to the recent death of six British soldiers or if it was a general anti-war sentiment. In any case, the message offended quite a few people on and off Facebook, especially those who had loved ones serving in armed forces. In fact, the message was deemed so offensive that Ahmed was later charged and tried in Huddersfield Magistrates Court for “sending a grossly offensive communication”.

Update: The British police are saying Ahmed was charged for a “racially aggravated public order offense”. Say what?!

In court, Ahmed admitted the message he posted was “unacceptable” but denied that it was “grossly offensive”. District Judge Jane Goodwin disagreed saying Ahmed’s message was “derogatory, disrespectful and inflammatory” and a jury convicted Ahmed of the charges levied against him. Sentencing for Ahmed will take place later this year; it isn’t entirely clear what his punishment will be.

According to Ahmed, his intention wasn’t to offend people or soldiers but rather to bring attention to the other deaths that are happening in Afghanistan. Ahmed also says he spent time apologizing to people after they posted replies to his comment and later realized “it was unacceptable for them to see something so upsetting and distressing, to write something like that”.

In that regard, I agree with one point. Ahmed’s message indeed was insensitive and irresponsible. While Ahmed may not have intended to offend people, he should have been more respectful of the feelings of others. Indeed most, if not all, of the soldiers in Afghanistan aren’t there by choice but rather by the choice of people on Downing Street. Being anti-war does not mean you need to wish harm on others.

That being said, however, does Ahmed’s message really constitute being taken to court? Should Ahmed have be tried for essentially hurting people’s feelings? As far as I can tell, Ahmed’s Facebook message did not trample on anyone’s rights, did not endanger anyone, and did not incite violence. Unless there are some facts I don’t know about, the way I see it Ahmed’s message is akin to a kid voicing his frustration, albeit in an irresponsible manner. Isn’t this something that is protected under the concept of free speech?

I mean if Ken Gregory — a British politician — can direct an anti-gay message at another person and only be “cautioned” (not charged) over it and Meurig Llwyd Williams — editor of a British church magazine Y Llan — is forced to resign but not charged for reprinting clearly offensive anti-Islam cartoons, then what makes Azhar Ahmed’s message different? It is easy to play the race and religion card here but the underlying reason could also just be national pride. After all, soldiers do hold a special place in the hearts of many. Or it could be both — how dare a “moslem” insult “our” soldiers.

I really don’t know what spurred the English justice system to charge a kid over a foolish Facebook comment. All I can ask is this: is free speech dead? Or, even worse, is free speech only for the blond haired and blue eyed? Shame on the prosecutor that charged this kid and shame on the judge and jury that allowed national pride (or whatever reason they ruled the way they did) to get in the way of a higher calling — justice. No one said justice is always fair but it shouldn’t be this unjust either.

[via BBC | Image via charlesfettinger]

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  • Jazz


    A sobering piece of advice.

    Although it is related to “computer type things”, with reference to Facebook and free speech on the Internet, this article, by its nature, was bound to stir religious/racial/political discussions, which not the kind of topic I come here for.

  • Millie

    Perhaps by way of contrast, we may compare the Muslim reaction to historian Tom Holland’s very sober and balanced inquiry into the historical origins of Islam shown recently on Channel4 – death threats, of course, what else?

    You can view Tom Holland excellent documentary here, and decide for yourself.

  • Millie

    With Muslim-White British tensions running as high as they currently are in certain parts of NW England, Ahmed’s message may reasonably be interpreted as potentially inciting yet another riot in this area.

    Ahmed’s message said: “People gassin about the deaths of Soldiers! What about the innocent familys who have been brutally killed.

    “The women who have been raped. The children who have been sliced up!

    “Your enemy’s were the Taliban not innocent harmful familys.

    “All soldiers should DIE & go to HELL! THE LOWLIFE F****N SCUM!

    “Gotta problem. Go cry at your soldiers grave and wish him hell because that’s where he is going.”

    Ahmed’s post remained visible on his Facebook page for some time, then:

    Having read tributes to the six dead soldiers Ahmed updated his Facebook page status.

    After 15 minutes Ahmed removed the post from his Facebook page, which included slogans such as ‘Islam will dominate the world’

    From Huddersfield Examiner

  • ovl

    Ashraf, you are not specific in your article.

    Azhar Ahmed, the Briton of Pakistani origin, admitted in court that he wrote his statement in FB after learning about the deaths of the British soldiers in Afghanistan in March. (The six British soldiers were killed by an IED in the deadliest single attack on British forces in Afghanistan since 2001). Just two days after their deaths, Ahmed posted his abhorrent message and addressed it to the British public and specifically to the military families (parents, wives, and children). Ahmed wrote: “People gassing about the deaths of soldiers!.. All soldiers should DIE & go to HELL! THE LOWLIFE FOKKIN SCUM! Gotta problem go cry at your soldiers’ grave & wish them hell…”

    After the trial, Ahmed left the court by a side door Without saying anything. District Judge said Ahmed’s Facebook remarks were “derogatory, disrespectful and inflammatory”. In court, Ahmed was Bailed after the district judge told him she wanted a pre-sentence report prepared. He is due back in court for sentence on October 9.

    BTW, according to Sharia: stoning and amputation of arms and legs is the proper punishment for “derogatory, disrespectful and inflammatory” behavior. Who knows what sentence Ahmed will be facing in England, but it will be the civilized one.

  • sal

    Shame on You ashraf! Stick to computer type things, that it why people come here. If you feel the need to vent go to the mainstream media Blogs.
    You are showing your political feelings and emotions.

  • Joshua


    A jolly good spanking, perhaps?

  • Mike

    And so, what is the punishment for being impolite and uncivil? Prison? Or how about, public service (such as in a vets’ facility)?

  • Peter

    Apart from the relation to catholic church since Henry VIII, Ahmed would have done better to cite:
    “The murder is a crime when an individual commits him, but he was honored as a virtue and valor, for him to commit many! So no more innocence assures impunity, but the size of the crime! ”

    Cyprian of Carthage

  • Jazz


    It depends on how people interpret what somebody says. Ahmed’s comment was not very specific and could be misunderstood. He also admitted that his (public) comment was unacceptable and distressing.

    On the other hand, his comment did not mention soldiers of a specific nationality and it seems that people just jumped to conclusions without substantive justification. If the intention was to criticise the act of war and it’s consequences for innocent civilians, then many of us who lived through the sixties might be criminals.

    Without knowing ALL the specifics, and judging by your article only, the finding does seem ambiguous and out of context with reality.

    But, let’s wait and see what the punishment is before we get too carried away. If it is harsh, then Ahmed will be entitled to appeal.

  • Ashraf

    @Paul D: You are not allowed to yell FIRE in a crowed theater because it could very well incite a riot. In other words, by yelling FIRE you are endangering others. I wouldn’t argue one bit if someone caused a riot by doing a fire wolf-call and was held accountable by the law for it.
    As I mentioned in the article above, as far as I know, Ahmed didn’t incite any such violence with his comment.
    See what I am getting at?

  • Paul D

    Freedom of speech has its limits. You are not free to falsely yell FIRE in a crowded theater, you are not free to incite a riot.

  • Ashraf

    @fermier: There are actually two points that I am trying to make. One is the free speech part, yes. The other is the double-standards at play.
    And as far as I know, the UK has more free speech than some countries but more restricted speech than the USA.

  • fermier

    Every country has its own laws, and while “free speech” is provided in the USA, it may not be in England, have to look it up. We cannot dictate to them what their laws should be. In fact, relatively few governments allow F.S.