Here’s why far-right activist Tommy Robinson has been jailed

It's not because he's a free speech martyr. It's because he doesn't know how the law works.

Tommy Robinson jailed for 13 months for contempt of court
Tommy Robinson, former leader of the far-right English Defence League, was sentenced to 13 months in jail over the weekend, for contempt of court. (CREDIT: Wiktor Szymanowicz / Barcroft Im / Barcroft Media via Getty Images)

In the past few years, Tommy Robinson’s far-right stock has been on the rise.

Robinson, whose real name is Stephen Christopher Yaxley-Lennon, is a former football hooligan, one time mortgage fraudster, and founder of the far-right English Defence League. He has moved from overt far-right activism to marketing himself as an “independent journalist,” reporting on subjects which he claims the “liberal elites” are trying to censor. Unsurprisingly, many of those topics involve the dangers of radical Islam.

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Robinson currently has nearly 850,000 followers of Facebook, has attended protests with Milo Yiannopoulos and Proud Boys Founder Gavin McInnes, and has spoken at the Oxford University Union.

Last Friday, all that came crashing down, when he was jailed for 13 months for contempt of court.

Robinson was outside Leeds Crown Court that day, hosting a Facebook live about a child grooming trial that was underway, one of a series of high-profile child grooming cases that the U.K. has seen over the last decade. Some of the cases have involved perpetrators from Muslim, South Asian, or Middle Eastern backgrounds, although the 2012 Children’s Commissioner report made it clear that abusers came from all ethnicities.

It’s easy to guess why Robinson was there, as well as the type of content he’d be broadcasting to 850,000 fans on Facebook. “Twenty-nine people, [including] two women, are involved in this case,” Robinson said during the livestream. “Thirty percent of them are called Mohammed.”

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Under English law, however, information that could prejudice the course of an ongoing trial cannot be released publicly, because it can affect the jury’s decision. The 1981 Contempt of Court Act, which governs how the British media report on trials, states that it is “contempt to publish any matter which creates a substantial risk of serious prejudice or impediment to the course of justice in legal proceedings.” This Act usually applies to journalists in dictating how they cover court trials but since Robinson’s reach is so large, it can apply to him as well.

Police in Leeds initially arrested Robinson for “breach of the peace” and detained him for five hours. After the judge overseeing his case lifted reporting restrictions over the weekend, however, it was revealed the right-wing figure had been charged with contempt of court for potentially prejudicing the outcome of a trial.

“I respect everyone’s right to free speech that’s one of the most important rights that we have,” Judge Geoffrey Marson QC told Robinson. “With those rights come responsibilities. The responsibility to exercise that freedom of speech within the law. I am not sure you appreciate the potential consequence of what you have done.”

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Marson added that a potential re-trial could cost hundreds of thousands of pounds and subject witnesses to the ordeal of testifying again.

Following Robinson’s arrest, the far-right in both Europe and the United States was apoplectic. In London, hundreds descended upon Whitehall to protest what they claimed was an act of “censorship,” while far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders called on the British government to release Robinson and “restore freedom of speech.” In the United States, far-right figures like Ben Garrison and Stefan Molyneux waded into the fray as well.

The far-right were also critical of the lack of media coverage of Robinson’s conviction — which they claimed was proof of a conspiracy to silence him. But media coverage of Robinson’s trial would have highlighted the reason he was there in the first place, his prejudicial Facebook live broadcast, thereby inadvertently publicizing it further. As a result, a temporary banning order was put on Robinson’s trial and conviction, which the British media itself  challenged and got struck down, enabling them to report on it.

Robinson has employed similar tactics before: in May last year, he pulled the same stunt outside Canterbury Crown Court and was given a suspended sentence for 18 months and explicitly warned, “[If you] turn up at another court, refer to people as “Muslim paedophiles, Muslim rapists” and so on and so forth while trials are ongoing and before there has been a finding by a jury…you will find yourself inside.”