The limits of free speech and expression are currently being tested in the United Kingdom after a YouTuber by the name of Count Dankula has come under fire for teaching his pug to perform the Nazi salute, among other things.
It all began when 30 year old Markus Meechan from North Lanarkshire, Scotland, uploaded a video of himself teaching his girlfriend’s pug to do a Nazi “sieg heil” salute. In addition to this trick, he also conditioned the dog to respond enthusiastically to the phrase “gas the Jews,” the part of the video that has the YouTuber in hot water with authorities.
The video of Markus teaching the dog these new tricks went viral back in 2016 and racked up over 3 million views under the title “M8 yer dugs a Nazi,” which, as it sounds, is Scottish slang for “Mate your dog’s a Nazi.” A catchy title but nothing terribly offensive in the labeling of the video itself. Authorities, again, are focusing on the content of the video which has free speech advocates reeling from what they see as a legal overstretch.
Bolstering Meechan’s defense is that the story behind the video is less about indoctrinating a pug into the National Socialist movement and more about his awkward attempt at humor. Meechan claims he wanted to “turn his girlfriend’s pug, Buddha, into the “least cute thing I could think of” and so wanted to turn it into a Nazi,” according to Newsweek’s Ewan Palmer.
But then there’s the actual video. In the video Meechan gets the dog to respond to “sieg heil,” records the dog getting excited by the phrase “gas the Jews,” and then, for the coup de grace, the pug listens to speeches by Adolf Hitler. From one perspective it’s a bit overkill, and from the UK government’s perspective it was illegal. After a public furore over the video, Meechan was arrested. He was charged with suspicion of a hate crime and a possible violation of the electronic communications act.
Meechan reiterates that he is not anti semitic and that the whole video was done in jest to annoy his 29-year old girlfriend Suzanne Kelly. Airdrie Sheriff’s Court in Scotland, however, takes exception with Meechan’s portrayal of the video as harmless fun. Sheriff Derek O’Carroll said of the case, “The accused knew that the material was offensive and knew why it was offensive. He would have known it was grossly offensive to many Jewish people.”
During Meechan’s trial a member of the Scottish Council of Jewish Communities, Ephraim Borowski, called the video “grossly offensive.”
But other members of the UK’s Jewish community have expressed support for Meechan, saying his video is an example of free speech.
In the end though, Count Dankula was convicted of being grossly offensive, a violation of the UK’s Communications Act.
Sheriff Derek O’Carroll said that free speech considerations were taken into account in his ruling, “But the right to freedom of expression also comes with responsibility,” he said.
“The description of the video as humorous is no magic wand.”
During the trial Meechan’s girlfriend testified that he had never expressed any anti semitic views to her whatsoever during the course of their relationship. Further, she called Meechan a liberal and tolerant person. The presiding Sheriff said that Meechan seemed like an intelligent man and thus should have known what he was posting was offensive and in what specific ways it would be perceived. His girlfriend Suzanne Kelly explained that she understood the video to be an example of his sense of humor.
Meechan reiterated that he made the video to annoy her and that, once it began to take off, he simply let momentum take its course. He never intended to make a video about indoctrinating a pug into being a Nazi or to offend anyone, he claims.
Jewish comedian David Baddiel said of the video: “I can see that the video may not be to everyone’s taste. Others may be able to see the comedic or satirical element to it. The court should seek to acquit Mr Meechan for no other reason but to show it is 2018 and not 1984,” in reference to the dystopian novel by George Orwell that posits an omnipresent “Big Brother” character that seeks to control all thought and action based upon arbitrary whims that change with political necessity.
UK comedian Ricky Gervais also chimed in on Twitter, saying “A man has been convicted in a UK court of making a joke that was deemed ‘grossly offensive’. If you don’t believe in a person’s right to say things that you might find ‘grossly offensive’, then you don’t believe in Freedom of Speech.”
As of press Meechan faces a prison sentence of up to six months for his conviction.