A British police force has been widely criticized for threatening to jail people whose social media posts cause people to “take offense”.
In a post of its own on Facebook, Cheshire Constabulary said that “a large fine or up to two years in prison” could follow whatever is perceived to be a controversial message on the site.
Their post prompted fury from ordinary users, who objected to the apparently heavy-handed attempts by officers to regulate what they were saying.
The full message said:
We would remind all social media users to think carefully about what they are saying before posting messages online. Although you may believe your message is acceptable, other people may take offense, and you could face a large fine or up to two years in prison if your message is deemed to have broken the law.
Cheshire Constabulary polices around a million people in the north-west of England, covering areas just outside of Manchester and Liverpool.
The force later attempted to backtrack from its original warning with a “clarification” that jail time and fines were only appropriate punishment for actual crimes, like inciting violence or racial hatred, rather than general “offense”.
The force wrote: “These crimes are about more than just showing hostility to one person, but about stirring up hatred against a whole group of people, regardless of what platform you use.”
Overzealous policing of speech – both online and on the streets – has increasingly become an issue in UK policing.
As Heat Street has documented, several police forces have vastly expanded their definition of a “hate crime” over the past year to include women as a protected group, alongside racial and religious minorities and the disabled.
In a statement to Heat Street, a spokesman for Cheshire Constabulary insisted that they were the victims of a “misunderstanding” and that they “recognize the importance of free speech”:
Unfortunately there has been a misunderstanding over our intention, which has led to a number of negative responses to the post.
As a Constabulary, we would never tell people what they can or can’t say, or what they can or can’t think. We recognize the importance of free speech and actively encourage engagement and discussion on a range of issues through our social media channels.
This post was issued specifically in response to those reports we received, and as a police force it is our responsibility to remind people that legislation exists prohibiting the incitement of hatred and violence. This applies to everyone regardless of age, gender, race or religion and we take all reports of this nature seriously, irrespective of who has made the comments.