A man who was arrested for allegedly posting a picture of a burning poppy online on Remembrance Sunday has been released on bail, amid condemnation by civil liberties activists and growing concern about threats to freedom of speech.
The 19-year-old from Canterbury, who has been named locally as Linford House, is being questioned by Kent Police on suspicion of an offence under the the Malicious Communications Act.
Freedom-of-speech campaigners accused the police of using the law to effectively arrest a man for causing offence. Leading human rights lawyer John Cooper QC offered to represent the teenager free of charge should the matter come to court.
Tim Minchin was among the comedians to speak out in favour of the arrested man’s right to cause offence. He said: You’ve a right to burn a (fake!) poppy. Whether I agree with the action is utterly irrelevant. Kent Police are out of line.” Mr House’s arrest was dubbed “poppycock” by many discussing the issue online.
Nick Pickles, director of Big Brother Watch, said the arrest was “utterly ridiculous”. He said: “Kent Police need to urgently release this man and drop an utterly ridiculous investigation into something that has harmed no one.
“It is not illegal to offend people and, however idiotic or insensitive the picture may have been, it is certainly not worthy of arrest.
“The case highlights the urgent need to reform a law that poses a serious risk to freedom of speech after several ludicrous prosecutions in recent months.”
The teenager is alleged to have posted the image of a poppy being burned with a cigarette lighter on Facebook, along with a caption which read: “How about that you squadey c——.”
Mr Cooper QC told The Independent: “Freedom of speech is not just the freedom to say nice things, it is the freedom to say obnoxious and distasteful things as well. What we have here, is a stupid and foolish young man making an obnoxious gesture. But to potentially criminalise him and to arrest him is disproportionate and dangerous to the very fundamental freedom of speech.
“There seems to be a growing intolerance and a particular intolerance to comments made on social media. It is almost as if certain sections of society – the police – are trying to send out unwarranted heavy-handed signals which are an affront to the very rights that we hold dear.”
In March last year, Emdadur Choudhury, a member of Muslims Against Crusades (MAC), was fined £50 after burning replica poppies on the anniversary of Armistice Day.
Choudhury had denied a charge under Section 5 of the Public Order Act of burning the poppies in a way that was likely to cause “harassment, harm or distress” to those who witnessed it.
But he was guilty of a “calculated and deliberate” insult to the dead and those who mourn them when he burned two large plastic poppies during a two-minute silence on 11 November, a district judge sitting at Belmarsh magistrates’ court said.
A spokeswoman for the Royal British Legion declined to comment on the investigation in Kent.
Kent Police said in a statement: “Officers were contacted at around 4pm [on Sunday] and alerted to the picture, which was reportedly accompanied by an offensive comment.
“Following an investigation by Kent Police, a 19-year-old Canterbury man was arrested on suspicion of an offence under the Malicious Communications Act. He has been interviewed by detectives and released on police bail, pending further investigation.”