A now-fired British police officer and former prison guard faces imprisonment for sending “grossly offensive” memes about George Floyd on WhatsApp.
Floyd, who died after U.S. police officer Derek Chauvin — since convicted of unintentional second-degree murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter — kneeled on his neck during an arrest in Minneapolis, was included among ten memes alleged to be “grossly offensive” which were shared by ex-constable James Watts in a group chat.
Sending such messages is a crime under the Communications Act 2003 in the United Kingdom, where the right to freedom of expression is guaranteed only under the very loose parameters laid out in the European Convention on Human Rights and is largely notional.
Article 10 of this convention states that people have the “freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers” — but that the exercise of this right “may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity, or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.”
Prosecutor Richard Purchase told Birmingham Magistrates’ Court that “[f]our of [the memes shared by the accused officer] explicitly referred to George Floyd and the ongoing [Black Lives Matter] protests, and to some extent, mocked his death,” claiming that the remaining six appeared to be “more general racist memes.”
An Express and Star court report was vague about the actual content of the messages, noting only that one of them featured “a white dog wearing Ku Klux Klan clothing” and that others “featured images of a kneeling mat and a monkey” and “mocked a line in the movie Jaws.”
Watts pleaded guilty to 10 counts of sending a grossly offensive or menacing message by a public communication network, but co-accused Joann Jinks, still of West Mercia Police, pleaded not guilty to the same offences. She faces trial in August.
Watts, for his part, now awaits his sentencing in June, with Deputy Chief Magistrate Tan Ikram making it clear he is not ruling out prison time due to what he described as “aggravating features in this case” and the fact that “[t]he court has to bear in mind the considerable reputational damage there can be by this sort of offending, when one is dealing with police officers.”