Man jailed for “despicable” comments about missing April Jones

A man who admitted to posting “despicable” comments about missing five-year-old April Jones on his Facebook page has been jailed for 12 weeks. Matthew Woods appeared at Chorley Magistrates’ Court today, where he pleaded guilty to “sending by means of a public electronic communications network a message or other matter that is grossly offensive” (section 127 (1) a of the Communications Act 2003). Woods’ comments, which included some of a sexually explicit nature about the youngster who went missing last week, were deemed so “abhorrent” that they deserved the longest sentence that could be passed, less a third to account for Woods’ early guilty plea.

Matthew Woods Facebook conviction – we cannot keep prosecuting jokes

Lancashire man Matthew Woods has been sentenced to 12 weeks in a young offender’s institute for making some very poor jokes.

It’s hard to know what to say after that.

Woods, 20, was arrested after posting jokes about missing Welsh schoolgirl April Jones on his Facebook page last Thursday. An angry mob reportedly later gathered at his house in Chorley, and he was taken by police at a separate address (quite possibly for his own protection).

According to reports, Woods was charged under sec 127 of the Communications Act — the same law, readers will recall, that Twitter Joke Trial defendant Paul Chambers found himself on the wrong side of.

It is worth noting that in his judgement on Paul Chambers appeal, the Lord Chief Justice made it quite clear that the Communications Act should not diminish

“Satirical, or iconoclastic, or rude comment, the expression of unpopular or unfashionable opinion about serious or trivial matters, banter or humour, even if distasteful to some or painful to those subjected to it”

But it has been used exactly to diminish Woods’s right to express unpopular, unfashionable and distasteful humour.

The “unfashionable” and “unpopular” elements of Woods’s comments and subsequent conviction bring to mind Liam Stacey’s conviction after he tweeted stupid comments about footballer Fabrice Muamba. Just as the nation then was apparently united in sympathy for the collapsed footballer, so now we are united in grief with the people of Machynlleth. Woods would appear to have been found “guilty” of crimes against taste and against sentiment.

We cannot allow this to continue. No one should be put in prison for making a joke that other people don’t like.

This week, the Crown Prosecution Service is consulting interested parties (including Index on Censorship) on whether new guidelines for prosecutions of social media cases are needed. This case goes to show how desperately urgent this reform is. In the past on this blog, we’ve bemoaned the something-must-be-done attitude that can lead to these cases coming to court. But now we have to say it ourselves: Something must be done about these absurd prosecutions. They are a danger to free speech, and a danger to the web.

ALSO READ: How do we legislate for social media?