The Nazi Pug and the limits of free speech

The Nazi Pug and the limits of free speech

by Murdo Fraser
article from Friday 23, March, 2018

THE CASE OF Count Dankula’s Nazi-saluting dog has this week put the Scottish justice system in the international spotlight. On Tuesday, at Airdrie Sheriff Court, 29-year-old Mark Meechan of Coatbridge (aka Youtube comedian Count Dankula) was convicted for causing “gross offence” under the Communications Act 2003. 

Already this case has become a cause celebre for champions of free speech from both left and right, with comedians Ricky Gervais and David Baddiel (a Jew himself, of course) leaping to Meechan’s defence. Conversely, the conviction of Meehan has been welcomed by members of Scotland’s Jewish community as striking a blow against anti-Semitism

In a nutshell, the background to the case is as follows. Meechan trained his girlfriend’s pug, called ‘Bhudda', to lift its right forepaw, in a parody of a Nazi salute. He posted on YouTube a video of the dog lifting its paw in response to Meechan saying the words “Seig Heil” and “Gas the Jews”, whilst watching old newsreel footage of a Hitler rally.

Meechan claimed that the video was made only to annoy his girlfriend, and was posted for the benefit of his 8 subscribers on YouTube. It ended up going viral, with now more than 3 million views. This led to his prosecution for posting material that was “anti-Semitic and racist in nature, and was aggravated by religious prejudice”. He was found guilty at Airdrie Sherriff Court by Sherriff Derek O’Carroll under the 2003 Act, and will be sentenced next month.

This case raises all sorts of interesting questions about the limits of free speech, and whether what is intended to be a joke should ever lead to a criminal conviction. So who is right here? What should we make of this case, and what does it tell us about the freedoms in our society?

As a liberal, I lean heavily in favour of maximum liberty of expression. There is not, and should not be, a right in law not to be offended by something someone else says, or does. That is not to say that many people would not find what Meechan did offensive, but that should not in itself lead to criminal charges.

The English comedian Roy “Chubby” Brown, still touring at the age of 73, proudly labels himself “the bad boy of British comedy”. His acts, comprised of sexist, racist and homophobic remarks, will undoubtedly cause offence to many people. Marketing material for his tour will make it clear that those who are “easily offended should stay away”. No one is seriously calling for his act to be banned, however much they might personally deplore it.

There are many other examples of material being broadcast that others will find offensive. When it went on release in 1979, Monty Python’s Life of Brian was banned in some cinemas for the offence it would cause to Christians. Today, no one bats an eyelid when it has one of its regular outings of terrestrial television. (Curiously, no courageous film-maker has ever followed up with the satirical “Life of Mohammed”, but perhaps that is an argument left for another day.)

So there is much out there that might cause us personal offence, but that does not mean we have a right to stop it being broadcast. However, there have to be limits to free speech. Someone inciting criminal behaviour cannot be allowed to go unchallenged. So, for example, a placard-waving crowd displaying slogans such as “Death to Catholics/Protestants/Jews/Muslims” goes beyond the limits of what we deem acceptable, in clearly inciting a criminal attack, and even in a tolerant liberal society this cannot be permitted.

So where do we draw the line? When does something offensive become something so hateful that it constitutes a crime? 

Here, surely context is everything, as Meechan’s defence lawyer Ross Brown said at his trial. We might watch The Producers, and laugh at the goose-stepping Nazis in the song and dance routines, or even see folk attending Sing-Along-a-Sound-of-Music attired as stormtroopers (as apparently some do), but wearing a Nazi uniform in the precincts of a synagogue with a view to intimidating worshippers might well be crossing a line.

In the context of the current legislation, which makes the test of criminality that the subject of a broadcast is “grossly offensive”, it is difficult to argue with Sherriff O’Carroll’s conclusion that a criminal offence had been committed. It is certainly a case worthy of appeal, to see what a higher court would make of it. But perhaps it points to the fact that the current law needs revision. 

In January last year, the Scottish Government asked Lord Bracadale to conduct an independent review of the existing laws around hate crime, and report back to Parliament. I hope that this case will inform his thinking, and help us all consider whether or not a criminal conviction was really appropriate in the circumstances, and if the current law needs to be redefined.

For advocates of free speech, defending a Nazi pug is a strange place to be, but defending liberty only for those with whom you agree is always easy. The real test of true liberals is their ability to defend those with whom they vehemently disagree, or whose actions they find offensive.

That may be uncomfortable, and sometimes unpopular, but that is the stance that the cause of liberty demands. The alternative can only be much, much worse.

We will find out next month what sentence awaits Count Dankula. Whether Bhudda the pug will be sent for diversity training remains to be seen.

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