A barrister at the centre of a storm of outrage over tweets he published earlier this year has been fined and warned over one tweet that was offensive and “could promote hostility towards Muslims”.
However, the Bar Standards Board (BSB) decided that the tweet that kicked off the controversy – in which Jon Holbrook talked about a “stroppy teenager of colour” – was not “seriously offensive or discreditable”.
The regulator investigated Mr Holbrook over 18 tweets which led to him being expelled from his chambers, although he said he had resigned four days earlier.
In January, the barrister – who at the time practised from Cornerstone Chambers – responded to an Equality and Human Rights Commission tweet about a Black girl, Ruby Williams, who was sent home from school because her Afro-style hair breached its uniform policy and then successfully challenged it under the Act.
Mr Holbrook’s initial tweet said: “The Equality Act undermines school discipline by empowering the stroppy teenager of colour.”
The BSB alleged that the tweet was designed to demean or insult Ms Williams. But an independent decision-making panel of the regulator decided that, while the language was “ill advised and may give rise to offence”, Mr Holbrook was expressing his personal political opinion on a piece of legislation rather than intending to demean or insult another.
The panel noted too that he had posted other tweets critical of the Act.
The second charge was that, between 25 March 2019 and 1 November 2020, he posted 17 other tweets “which were designed to demean or insult others including Muslims, homosexuals and women and which tweets may be considered distasteful or offensive by others”.
In relation to all but one of them, the panel said Mr Holbrook had again expressed his personal political opinions. While they “might have caused offence to others”, they were not seriously offensive or discreditable such as to amount to a breach of the BSB Handbook.
The exception was a response to a tweet calling on the French authorities to shut down Charlie Hebdo magazine following the beheading of schoolteacher Samuel Paty by an Islamist after he showed his class cartoons from the magazine depicting the prophet Muhammad.
The barrister wrote: “Free speech is dying & Islamists & other Muslims are playing a central role. Who will lead the struggle to reinstate free speech as the foundation of all other freedoms?”
The panel said the ordinary reasonable reader would understand this to mean that the Muslim community was to blame for curtailing free speech.
“The panel considered this would not only cause offence but could promote hostility towards Muslims as a group.
“The panel considered that such behaviour was likely to diminish trust and confidence that the public place in you or the profession and that there was therefore evidence of a breach of CD5 of the Handbook.”
It imposed an ‘administrative’ sanction of a warning and £500 fine, noting that Mr Holbrook had no previous disciplinary findings against him and the breach concerned just one tweet.
The warning said: “You are warned to take care to consider how your public posts as a barrister may impact on you and/or the profession and take care to consider the standards set out in the BSB Handbook and any supporting guidance at the time.”
The starting point for the fine was £400. The panel said that, in deciding the level, Mr Holbrook’s lack of remorse and insight were aggravating factors, while his previous good character was a mitigating factor.
The BSB said administrative sanctions were taken into account if further breaches of the Handbook occurred, but did not constitute a disciplinary finding and so would not be disclosed to any third parties except in limited circumstances.
However, Mr Holbrook has chosen to make it public and declared his intention to appeal.
Writing on the Conservative Woman website, he said the decision to fine him challenged “the two principles on which a free society is built”: the right to express a political point of view, “save for limited exceptions with suitably high and clear thresholds”; and the rules of natural justice.
He explained: “I was originally charged but later exonerated for tweets that were ‘designed to demean or insult’ individuals.
“The charge for which I was fined (causing offence and possible hostility to a group) was one never put to me, and acted on by unidentified bureaucrats from behind closed doors, who I was given no chance to see or address.”
Mr Holbrook concluded: “I will appeal against the BSB’s ‘administrative sanction’ and continue the fight for free speech, including for the right of barristers to play a full role in the political life of the nation.
“Free speech can die in many ways, whether at the hand of terrorists spreading fear, keyboard activists seeking cancellation or administrators imposing unjust fines. None of them must be allowed to succeed.”
On his Twitter account, Mr Holbrook describes himself as a “barrister cancelled for defying the woke” and UKIP’s free speech spokesman.