UK Judge: Police acted like the gestapo when they went to man's workplace over a tweet

A former police officer named Harry Miller posted some tweets about trans rights last year which prompted a visit from the police after one anonymous person complained. Today, Miller won a partial court victory in the case with the judge suggesting police had gone too far by showing up at Miller’s office and, in effect, threatening him into silence:

Mr Justice Julian Knowles said that the police’s actions towards Mr Miller, 55, “disproportionately interfered with his right of freedom of expression” after officers visited him at work over tweets he had posted about transgender people.

“The effect of the police turning up at [the claimant’s] place of work because of his political opinions must not be underestimated,” the judge told the High Court.

“To do so would be to undervalue a cardinal democratic freedom. In this country we have never had a Cheka, a Gestapo or a Stasi. We have never lived in an Orwellian society.”…

Mr Miller, 55, was visited last year after the force received the complaint about his tweets, which included a limerick about transgender people and one saying: “I was assigned mammal at birth but my orientation is fish. Don’t mis-species me.”

He was told that his tweets would be recorded as a “non-crime hate incident” and that any “escalation” would result in prosecution. He said that PC Gul, who visited him, had told him: “I need to check your thinking.”

Now that they have lost this case, it’s the police who need to check their thinking. The Guardian has more:

In the Miller case, the judge ruled that there was no evidence Miller’s tweets “were ‘designed’ to cause deep offence”, adding that: “The tweets were not directed at the transgender community. They were primarily directed at the claimant’s Twitter followers.” The tweets were lawful and there was not “the slightest risk” that he would commit a criminal offence by continuing to tweet, he ruled.

Knowles stressed “the vital importance of free speech”, saying it included “not only the inoffensive, but the irritating, the contentious, the eccentric, the heretical, the unwelcome and the provocative”.

In his judgment, Knowles said: “I conclude that the police’s actions led him, reasonably, to believe that he was being warned not to exercise his right to freedom of expression about transgender issues on pain of potential criminal prosecution.”

While the portion of the case involving the actions of the police was a clear win for Miller, the judge handed him a loss with another portion of the case. Miller had argued that the underlying guidance police relied upon in the case violated his rights and needed to be reviewed. The judge sided with the College of Policing, ruling that the guidance itself was lawful even if the police’s actions based on the guidance crossed a line. The BBC offered some history on the non-crime hate incident guidance:

The police guidance on non-crime hate incidents was developed after the murder of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence in a racist attack in 1993.

Its aim is to deal with hate incidents before they escalate into serious hate crimes.

Each year more than 25,000 such non-crime hate incidents are logged by UK police. The bulk relate to race and disability.

Today’s ruling will make the job of policing such incidents increasingly challenging for the police. Where does a comment or statement leave the boundaries of free speech and become a hate incident short of a crime?

Despite the ruling in its favor, the College of Policing is already reviewing that guidance. Also, the judge said Miller could appeal the loss of this portion of the case and Miller announced after the verdict that he intended to take the matter to the Supreme Court.

It seems like a very good thing that a judge has drawn a bright line between actual hate and harassment on the one hand and someone tweeting an opinion about a current topic of debate. Hopefully police will be a lot more careful in future before showing up at someone’s workplace and telling them to adjust their thinking.