Wait a minute… wasn’t David Cameron at the front of the line for that Paris rally in support of Charlie Hebdo not that long ago? I’m pretty sure that we were all supposed to be on the same page when it comes to the whole free speech, satire is okay bandwagon. But if that’s the case, why were the British police tracking down the people who bought copies of the magazine when they put out that record setting edition?

Several British police forces have questioned newsagents in an attempt to monitor sales of a special edition of Charlie Hebdo magazine following the Paris attacks, the Guardian has learned.

Officers in Wiltshire, Wales and Cheshire have approached retailers of the magazine, it has emerged, as concerns grew about why police were attempting to trace UK-based readers of the French satirical magazine.

Wiltshire police apologised on Monday after admitting that one of its officers had asked a newsagent to hand over the names of readers who bought a special “survivors’ issue” of the magazine published after its top staff were massacred in Paris last month.

The case in Corsham, Wiltshire, was thought to be an isolated incident but it has since emerged that Cheshire constabulary and Dyfed-Powys police have also approached newsagents over the sale of Charlie Hebdo.

In at least two cases – in Wiltshire and in Presteigne, Wales – officers have requested that newsagents hand over the names of customers who bought the magazine.

That’s a few too many cases to be written off as an isolated incident or some rogue police chief. And it’s seems far too stupid for a group of random individuals to have thought it up independently at the same time. This has the appearance of an orchestrated, fairly broad intelligence gathering operation. I actually first caught wind of this story at The Pundit Press, where the incredulity of other free speech advocates is reported and understandable.

“This is so ridiculous as to be almost laughable,” fumed Jodie Ginsberg, chief executive of a free expression campaign group. “And it would be funny if it didn’t reflect a more general worrying increase in abuse of police powers in invading privacy and stifling free speech in Britain.

“Does possessing a legally published satirical magazine make people criminal suspects now? If so, I better confess that I too have a copy of Charlie Hebdo.”

Any such discussion should begin with an acknowledgement that the Brits don’t have the same freedoms that we enjoy in the United States. It may look like the same sort of open, free society at a quick glance, but the liberties they enjoy exist only at the pleasure of the government and the authorities and are subject to suspension at any time. Their essential freedoms are not enshrined in their founding documents.

But even with that said, what was the purpose of gathering that information? How are the people buying the magazine supposed to be the ones who require watching? One might assume that they were supporting free speech. If you’re going to be tracking down anybody, I’d think you’d be out lurking around the mosques and finding out who was watching the magazine stand and making lists of the folks who bought them. (That might be one of the advantages of living in a less free society I suppose… you can do things like that without the ACLU or the Southern Poverty Law Center immediately dragging you into court and demanding your head on a platter.)

There seems to be nothing further coming from the Brits than a rather generic apology. I’d like to hear a bit more of an explanation and see if just possibly there was some rationale behind that decision. Even if it’s a completely boneheaded starting point, everyone could rest a little easier if they indicated that they were at least targeting the correct bad guys.