In April 2016, Scottish YouTuber Mark Meechan uploaded a video titled "M8 Yer Dugs a Nazi" that ended up getting 3 million views. In the video, Meechan teaches his girlfriend's dog to raise its leg every time he says "Seig Heil."
To the police, this was worse than unfunny. It was criminal. Meechan was arrested, spent a night a jail, and was charged with committing a hate crime. The self-proclaimed "sh**poster" claimed he was just trying to annoy his girlfriend, but on Tuesday he was found guilty by Airdrie Sheriff Derek O’Carroll of posting a video that was "grossly offensive."
They say that dissecting a joke is like dissecting a frog; you figure out how it works, but you kill it in the process. But since a man's freedom at stake, permit me to do just that.
All comedy basically boils down to disjunction and subverted expectations. "Why did the chicken cross the road? To get to the other side," is funny in abstract because you expect the joker to give you an account of what motivates the chicken to cross the road, but instead get a mundane tautology. It's also not funny in practice because we've all heard the joke, so the punchline meets our expectations.
From the start, Meechan made it perfectly clear what the disjunction driving the joke is. "My girlfriend is always ranting and raving about how cute and adorable her wee dog is," he said. "And so I thought I would turn him into the least cute thing I could think of, which is a Nazi."
That's the core of the joke. His girlfriend think of pugs as cute, innocent animals, but they're dumb animals who can be tricked into doing things that humans think of as evil. You expect sweetness, and get race hatred.
The point of the Nazi pug joke was that Nazis are bad.
And yet the U.K. law Meechan violated is so vague as to criminalize huge swaths of harmless speech. The 2003 Communications Act bans online speech that is "grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character," or even just speech "causing annoyance, inconvenience or needless anxiety to another" (I'm pretty sure that last part describes the entirety of Twitter).
Even before the Nazi pug case, the law had been used to reach insane conclusions. "Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You've got a week and a bit to get your s**t together… otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!!" tweeted a Yorkshire man in 2010.
It should have been exceedingly obvious that a man complaining that his local airport wasn't open had no intention of blowing up the same airport. But the man was arrested and convicted under the theory that someone, somewhere might take it seriously. That ruling was even upheld on appeal, and it took a second round of appeals and two whole years for his conviction to be squashed.
In response, the Crown Prosecution Service released prosecutorial guidelines to avoid a similar situation. But those guidelines applied only to England and Wales, not Scotland. And even if they did, they're still merely guidelines. All you need is one vindictive prosecutor or an overzealous police officer to squash speech they dislike.
It doesn't matter if I say upfront that the rest of this paragraph is satire, and that I would never actually say that Britons are ugly, that their dentistry is bad, that their food is bland and inedible, that their football is inferior and boring, that they're mindless subjects to a family of Germans, that the English are bores, that the Welsh are idiots, that the Scottish are the worst of the bunch, and that the only reason they aren't all seig heiling is because the U. S. of freaking A. had to bail them out of Dubya Dubya Two.
I would never say any of that. But even if I were to say it jokingly, it would only take one person to take offense to land me in a U.K. prison. And that's not remotely funny.