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He's single, ladies!

PUBLISHED: 10:47 17 October 2012

If a man suggests that writing down all your previous sexual partners in a notebook to help him "deal" with your past is a good idea, I don't think it's outrageous to assume that he's probably not a keeper.

Comedian Justin Lee Collins, who increasingly looks like Simba’s dad from The Lion King, escaped with a community sentence for his campaign of physical and mental abuse against his former girlfriend which included the penning of said notebook, forcing her to sleep facing him, slapping her, yanking her hair, spitting in her face and constantly threatening and degrading her.

Yes, ladies, I did say “former girlfriend”. He’s on the market: form an orderly queue.

St Albans Crown Court also heard that Collins forced his ex-partner Anna Larke to throw away DVDs featuring male actors she found attractive, made her close her email, Facebook and Twitter accounts, told her she could look at trees, the ground and benches but not other men and that if she fell asleep before him she ran the risk of him texting other women.

Let me reiterate, Justin Lee Collins is single. Heaven only knows why.

The judge presiding over Collins’s case could have jailed him for up to five years but instead decided to take into account evidence from his estranged wife Karen which he claimed proved that what Collins had done was “genuinely out of character”.

Presumably this means that if I go out and kill someone – someone who really, really annoys me, I’m not a monster or anything – I could walk out of court with a bit of litter-picking if I find an ex-boyfriend who can swear that I never killed them, therefore my actions were “genuinely out of character”.

Less than an hour after his sentencing, Collins – who denied the charges – was seen laughing raucously with two of his female legal representatives: the women were laughing too, which really is “genuinely out of character” for anyone listening to JLC’s comedy.

Meanwhile, as millionaire Collins searches for loose change in his pocket to pay his £3,500 court costs and prepares to undertake a paltry 140 hours of community service, our courts are jailing people for comments they’ve made online: slap, humiliate and degrade women as much as you like, but for God’s sake don’t make a joke about it on Twitter or you’re going down for a three-stretch.

Last week, a Muslim man who somewhat unwisely took to Facebook to vent his fury at the UK’s involvement in the ongoing Afghanistan conflict narrowly escaped jail but picked up 240 hours of community service after being convicted under section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 for making “grossly offensive” comments.

The comments from Azhar Ahmed from Yorkshire were undoubtedly offensive: he said that British soldiers “should die and go to hell” – it’s unpleasant and it’s nasty, but is it worse than subjecting a woman to nine months of purgatory? Frankly, no.

Ahmed’s sentence came a day after another nasty piece of work, Matthew Woods from Lancashire, was jailed for three months after posting some hateful jokes about missing five-year-old April Jones online.

Had Frankie Boyle made the same jokes, he’d have been given another series on Channel 4.

Obviously there are limits to what constitutes free speech – one can’t incite violence or encourage hatred based on religion, disability or sexuality – but if simply being offensive and stupid is deemed to be a crime worthy of a jail sentence, our prisons will soon be jam-packed.

The judge who sentenced Ahmed said that she didn’t condone silencing political opinions but that the views he put forward were “beyond the pale of what’s tolerable in our society”.

To be precise, the single post on Facebook – which was instantly removed after complaints and for which Ahmed apologised profusely – was deemed to be more serious than Justin Lee Collins’s nine-month campaign of rampant, loony misogyny to the tune of an extra 100 hours community service.

Deciding what is and isn’t tolerable in society is a difficult business and, on the whole, I’d rather people had the right to say stupid, offensive things without the threat of prison if the alternative is all of us looking over our shoulders for Big Brother in case someone nearby has intimate knowledge of section 127 of the Communications Act and section five of the Public Order Act.

It’s not often I turn to French Enlightenment writer, historian and philosopher Voltaire for inspiration (although who doesn’t turn to his fantastic page-turner ‘Candide ou L’Optimisme’ about optimistic determinism in darker moments? It’s that or the Mr Jelly from the Mr Men series) but the bewigged old boy had it right when he said: “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”

In the grand scale of things, it’s not such a long time ago that sitcoms such as Love Thy Neighbour filled our homes with the kind of casual racism that would cause public inquiries and witch-hunts today and lead to prisons packed with scriptwriters, producers and TV executives.

Free speech and democracy is really frightening, because it allows people to have opinions that we might not like or agree with but the alternative – censorship – is far, far more frightening.

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