Scottish right-wing social media personality Mark Meechan has been convicted in an Airdrie court of offensive anti-Semitic hate speech under the 2003 Communications Act for training his dog to give a Nazi salute to the command “Gas the Jews.” Meechan maintains that this was only a “joke” and a number of celebrities – including Ricky Gervais, David Baddiel, Jonathan Pie, Katy Hopkins, and EDL founder Tommy Robinson – have come to his defence. Their contention is that the notion of free speech gives us all the right to say whatever we want and whenever we want without recrimination or legal consequence.
This is not true. This is not what the right to free speech means. Freedom of speech is not simply the right to say what one wants without consequence. Society still has the right, for the sake of the peace and security of the state, to impose limitations on what people are able to express without legal recrimination. One cannot raise a false alarm that would put other people’s healths and lives at risk, one cannot perjure under oath, we cannot libel, we cannot say or broadcast anything that is grossly offensive, we cannot engage in hate speech, and we cannot say or publicise anything that would incite others to violence or to commit a crime. No society anywhere has allowed people to say whatever comes into their heads without boundaries, not even the United States – the go to example of free speech.
Nor is it the case that just because something is said as joke and that people found it funny that it cannot also be grossly offensive, hate speech, and incitement. Ricky Gervais has said in the context of this debate that nothing should be out of bounds for comedy. The assumption here is that somehow comedy is beyond the reach of ethical, moral, and legal censure; that the laughter lounge is a special sanctuary in which the normal rules of behaviour do not apply.
The problem here, in my estimation, is that a chasm has opened up between sound ethical reasoning and contemporary culture to the point that more and more people are finding it increasingly more difficult to understand why something is wrong. Where the law is about what is right and what is wrong, ethics is about why something ought to be right and wrong. Without an understanding of why deriving laughter from symbols of Nazi hatred and from the extermination of the Jews during the Holocaust is wrong the law begins to read like an arbitrary and irrational decree.
While Meechan did not glorify Nazism, the use of the term “Gas the Jews” in the context of a joke with a global audience does normalise the treatment of the subject has humour – and this is a serious problem. It is wrong poke fun at human suffering, and in light of the fact that the Jewish genocide was a hate crime in nature poking fun enters into the territory of being grossly offensive and – in some cases – antisemitism. It does not require one to be a Nazi, a neo-Nazi, a Nazi sympathiser, or even a racist to be guilty of committing such a crime.