One of Britain’s most notorious anti-Muslim campaigners was arrested for disrupting a trial last week and was sentenced that same day to a year in prison, which the judge ordered news media not to report on.
The gag order backfired, turning English Defense League founder Tommy Robinson into a sort of free-speech martyr to conservatives such as Donald Trump Jr. and Roseanne Barr before the gag order was lifted Tuesday.
Robinson, 35, is “the driving force behind a national movement that seeks to ban Muslim immigration to Britain and advocates tearing down many of the country’s mosques,” Griffe Witte wrote for The Washington Post. Robinson had been arrested multiple times before last week, for crimes including fraud and assault, according to Leeds Live, and Twitter has permanently banned him for claiming that Islam is murderous.
But Robinson has continued to live-stream video rants to hundreds of thousands of viewers. He tends to film outside courthouses, where he often claims Muslims on trial are representative of their religion.
It’s illegal in Britain to report the details of some trials before they conclude — a long-standing law designed to prevent the news from biasing juries and causing prosecutions to collapse, according to Leeds Live.
Robinson was convicted of breaking that law last year, the BBC wrote, when he tried to film defendants outside a trial in Canterbury. His three-month sentence was suspended at the time, but the judge warned him that another offense would send him to prison.
Nevertheless, Robinson kept filming. He was arrested and released after trying “to video Muslims” at a trial in early May, the Independent wrote. He showed up with his cameraman again Friday — this time outside a restricted child-sex-abuse trial at Leeds Crown Court, for what he inaccurately announced was the verdict.
He chased down several dark-skinned men on their way to the courthouse, apparently convinced that they were rapists: “How are you feeling about your verdict? Got your prison bags there?”
Unable to enter the building, Robinson stood outside for an hour and dispensed “facts” on the grooming of children for sex.
“Ninety percent of the grooming gang convictions are Muslim males,” he told his Facebook Live viewers — 250,000 by the time the stream ended.
Several police officers had been standing in the background of the frame. After the video ended, the Independent wrote, the officers arrested him and put him in a police van. “I’ve done nothing,” Robinson protested and asked a small crowd of his fans to call a lawyer.
In a short hearing the same afternoon, Leeds Live wrote, a judge watched the video, and Robinson pleaded guilty to contempt of court — forcing him to serve his previous suspended sentence plus another 10 months, or 13 months total.
“No one could possibly conclude that it would be anything other than highly prejudicial to the defendants in the trial,” the judge said.
Reporters watched the hearing, but the judge ordered them not to publish anything about Robinson’s arrest until after the sex-assault trial concluded — to avoid prejudicing the same jury with reports of Robinson's interference.
News of the arrest leaked almost instantly, and far-right personalities portrayed it as the act of a police state.
Keying off Robinson’s previous claims that Muslim prison inmates wanted to kill him, Roseanne Barr called his arrest a “death sentence.” Donald Trump Jr. compared it to the cause for the American Revolution, and Mike Cernovich said a compilation of deleted news articles about the arrest was “the most terrifying video you'll see today.”
U.S. websites ignored the ban. Conservative outlets and alt-right blogs accused the British media of abetting a coverup. Drudge blasted the arrest across its front page, and 500,000 people signed a “Free Tommy” petition. The movement swelled until hundreds marched in London over the weekend.
“How can we tell you what you’re doing wrong, when we can’t even talk about it?” one protester screamed at a police officer.
Meanwhile, the Independent and Leeds Live went to court to legally challenge the gag order — in part by arguing that their competitors were already violating it.
The newspapers won their challenge Tuesday, the BBC wrote, and everyone is now free to report that Robinson will be serving a 13-month prison sentence for interfering with two trials — one last year and one last week.
That has, at least, somewhat complicated his brief stint as a martyr.
“This is not some new form of censorship directed at Robinson,” BBC correspondent Dominic Casciani wrote. “These are rules that apply to us all, equally. If he is unsure about that, he's now got time on his hands to read a copy of 'Essential Law for Journalists.' ”