Can you go to jail for making memes?
Can something as inherently harmless as posting a meme get you in trouble with the law? What is the law around sharing memes anyway? Are some offensive memes okay, and if so, where is the line?
Memes are fun, right? A gentle, creative hobby with humour, sharing and fellowship at its heart. Memes bring people together, and if they make fun of anybody, it’s surely always in a spirit of respectful, lighthearted mockery.
Well, the authorities don’t always see it that way. And you might want to start being careful whose faces you start plastering all over your witty image macros or GIFs. Because you may well end up tortured, or in jail.
Here’s a few instances where posting memes led to people finding themselves very much on the wrong side of the authorities:
BRITISH COP ARRESTED FOR MEMES
Our first example, shockingly, concerns an actual member of the British Police Force, who was full-on sentenced to 20 weeks in jail for sharing a raft of offensive and, frankly, shocking memes on a WhatsApp group.
James Watts, now in his early thirties, shared a bunch of horrific racist memes mocking, among other things, the death of George Floyd. At the time he was a constable with the West Mercia Police, near the city of Birmingham in the midlands.
Floyd was murdered in May 2020, and Watts’ disgusting meme spree happened throughout May and June of 2020. The images included grotesque photoshops of Floyd’s face superimposed on a kneeling mat, and jokes about the death of Floyd invoking beloved children’s character George of the Jungle, and the board game Guess Who.
The presiding Magistrate, one Tok Ikram, accused Watts of of ‘undermining the confidence the public has in the police.
‘Your behavior brings the criminal justice system as a whole into disrepute. The hostility that you demonstrated on the basis of race makes this offending so serious that I cannot deal with it by a community penalty or a fine’.
INDIAN TORTURED FOR JOKE MEME
In 2019, Priyanka Sharma, a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Yuva Morcha – basically a youth movement within a mainstream Indian political party – was arrested and tortured for sharing a meme about a rival leader.
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee was upset that Sharma had shared a meme of him superimposed on actress and international megastar Priyanka Chopra’s Met Gala outfit.
‘I was forced to sign an apology letter. I have never apologised. I have not done anything that needs an apology,’ said Sharma on her release.
‘I was put behind the bars for a harmless social media post. I was jailed for five days, torturd and was made to live in a terrible condition.’
Her family have petitioned for compensation to the tune of Rs 50 lakh (about $60k).
BRIT ARRESTED FOR FLAG MEME
Last summer British police arrested a man at home after he posted a meme to social media.
His crime, according to the BBC, was ‘malicious communications’. Another man, who recorded the arrest on his phone, was also detained by cops for ‘obstructing arrest’.
So what was the meme? It was an arrangement of four trans flags, presented in such a way as to resemble a Nazi swastika. Kinda mean, really stupid, and not even funny.
COPS HATE HIPPIES
A police training presentation in Portland, Oregon attracted controversy after it was revealed to contain a slide apparently advocating violence.
The meme apparently showed a cop in tactical gear raising his fist against an unarmed person in civilian clothes.
Its caption read: ‘And the Lord said… Woe be unto you, dirty hippy.’
‘I shall send among you my humble servants with hat, and with bat, that they may christen your heads with hickory, and anoint your faces with pepper spray.’
Portland Mayor and Police Commissioner Ted Wheeler said he was ‘disgusted’ by the image, although nobody has technically gone to jail over it.
You can totally go to jail for making memes. How likely that is depends on what country you’re living in, and how strict the laws are. It’s worth remembering everything on the internet lasts forever though, and laws change.
So maybe let’s all just remember the golden rule:
That way nobody ends up hurt, or in goddamn jail!