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When Does A Joke Become a Crime?

We’ve all had to suffer jokes made in poor taste.

But YouTuber Mark Meechan found out that self-proclaimed attempts at humour don’t make you exempt from the law when he was hauled before the court and fined for teaching his girlfriend’s dog to perform a Nazi salute and respond to Nazi chants which he defended as being “clearly comedic”.

But what exactly is hate speech and when does a joke become something that could see you in trouble with the law?

What happened in this particular case?

Mr Meechan, who goes by the name of Count Dankula, said he made the video - which involved his partner’s pug raising its paw and responding to Nazi statements - as a joke.

Posted on YouTube in April 2016, it has been viewed millions of times. Some found it amusing, others said it was crude and anti-Semitic.

Mr Meechan was charged and found guilty of breaching the Communications Act by posting material that was “grossly offensive” and “anti-Semitic and racist” following a trial.

Mr Meechan raised issues of freedom of speech, something which satirists and various members of the public agreed with hence contributing to a fund to help him appeal his conviction.

What is hate speech?

Hate speech is defined as language that attacks a person or group on the basis of attributes such as race, religion, ethnic origin, sexual orientation, disability or gender. Any communication which is threatening or abusive and is intended to harass, alarm or distress someone, is forbidden.

When would you get in trouble for hate speech?

If you tell a joke and it is perceived to be hostile to a person or group who have any one of the protected characteristics listed above, you could find yourself in trouble with the law.

Indeed, if somebody else witnesses something you say and has grounds to believe your words or behaviour were motivated by hostility or prejudice based on any of those characteristics, you could see yourself charged with a hate crime.

There is no legal definition of hostility so the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) uses the everyday understanding of the word which includes ill-will, spite, contempt, prejudice, unfriendliness, antagonism, resentment and dislike.

What are the penalties?

Sentencing ranges from fines to prison time for different types of hate crimes as they fall under different acts.

The different types of acts that you could be charged under range quite widely from public order, if you’re seen to be inciting racial hatred, criminal damage; if you damage property and the Communications Act; which would involve posting or distributing material that is deemed to be hostile in nature, among others.

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