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Wednesday, September 11, 2019

In England, Criminalizing Insults Isn't Free Speech

     Forty-six-year-old Peter Nelson, an IT consultant with GlaxoSmithKline pharmaceutical company in the United Kingdom, lived with his wife and three children in a $1.8 million five-bedroom home in Ascot, Berkshire. On June 2, 2018, the 20-year employee of the drug company was traveling from London to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil aboard an 11-hour British Airways flight. Having had more than a few drinks, Mr. Nelson was asleep when awoken by flight attendant Sima Patel-Pryke who asked him for his food order.

     Enraged over being so disturbed, Nelson lashed out at the attendant. "You Asians," he yelled, "think you are better than us. I don't want to be served by your lot. I've paid your wages for the last 20 years." The out-of-control passenger demanded to be served by a "white girl."

     Peter Nelson's verbal outburst reduced the flight attendant to tears and caused the pilot to authorize the cabin crew to break out a "restraining kit" and inform the unruly passenger that if he continued disrupting the flight he would be "arrested."

     Upon his return to England, Peter Nelson was charged with one count of racially aggravated abuse. The criminal charge and the publicity that followed resulted in Nelson's discharge from the pharmaceutical company.

     The Peter Nelson racially aggravated abuse trial got underway in August 2019 before a jury sitting in Iselworth Crown Court. In his opening remarks to the jury, Crown Prosecutor Michael Tanney said, "It's no mere mischief to say he bullied and ranted and shouted. At one point, after a sustained targeting of Ms. Pryke, she began to back away in fright and became tearful."

     Representing the defendant, Lauren Sales informed the jurors that Mr. Nelson's wife, as a result of the publicity regarding her husband, had broken down under stress and had to be hospitalized. "He has lost his job. He was the breadwinner of the family. It is life changing for Mr. Nelson. He and his wife have taken their children out of school because it's an international school. The children feel they cannot go to the gates of the school and stand in the playground." According the Barrister Sales, the family might be forced to return to New Zealand.

     The Crown Court jury found Mr. Nelson guilty as charged. Before sentencing the defendant, Judge Edward Connell said, "You plainly displayed a contemptuous attitude towards the staff from the onset. When Ms. Pryke, simply doing her job, came to wake you up to take your food order you took immediate offense at her having the audacity to wake you up. It seems that was the beginnings of what turned out to be an opportunity for you to get upset without any justification at all. That manifested itself in the most unpleasant of ways. It was thoroughly unpleasant conduct by you....

     A bit longwinded, the judge continued his pre-sentence lecture: "It's quite plain, albeit this wasn't the most serious case the court hears, that it had an impact on Ms. Pryke who we heard in evidence was upset and ended up in tears because of your behavior. It was clearly unacceptable and I'm entirely satisfied it was contributed by the fact you drank a significant amount of alcohol during the course of the flight. I accept that this conviction will have profound ramifications for you and your employability so I'm persuaded that this can be dealt with as a financial penalty.

     Judge Connell fined Peter Nelson $2,450. He also had to pay $615 in compensation to the victim and $4,300 in prosecution costs.

     In the United Kingdom, the cradle of democracy, your mouth can now get you into trouble with the law and even into prison. This is no longer a country that values free speech.

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