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Aidan White


Published: 28 March 2012

Region: UK

By Aidan White

On March 17th I made the following comment on my Twitter account: “Fabrice Muamba. Great talent. Football fans everywhere uniting in solidarity. Come on son, you can make it.”

Like millions of football supporters I was responding to the terrible news a couple of hours earlier that the young Bolton midfielder was fighting for his life after collapsing with heart failure during the cup tie with Tottenham Hotspurs. Happily he is on the road to recovery.

But not everyone was so sympathetic. Liam Stacey, a 21-year-old Swansea University student, posted offensive comments prompting condemnation from other Twitter users and provoking him into a further volley of racist insults. As a result he was reported to police and charged with incitement to racial hatred. Now he is in jail.

Stacey was in tears throughout his court hearing and was led away to serve his 56-day sentence in handcuffs after the judge reportedly told him: "It was racist abuse via a social networking site instigated as a result of a vile and abhorrent comment about a young footballer who was fighting for his life…I have no choice but to impose an immediate custodial sentence to reflect the public outrage at what you have done…You committed this offence while you were drunk and it is clear you immediately regretted it. But you must learn how to handle your alcohol better."

What makes this incident relevant for media is that it reveals the startling distinctions between journalism and social media – the difference between responsible speech and bar-room banter. It also highlights how judges who apply the law need to tread carefully if they are to avoid creating a chilling effect not just in the pub, but across the whole spectrum of free expression including journalism.

Anyone who cares for tolerance in society will find Stacey’s actions repugnant and distasteful, but the comments of the judge and the severity of the sentence – prison for what appears to be a first offence – are equally troubling for people who defend free speech.

Around the world people get sent to jail regularly, particularly journalists, for publishing material that others, usually politicians and people in power, find deeply offensive and insulting. Free speech campaigners argue that free expression should only be restricted when there is a danger of imminent harm. It is not enough that the comments are vile and offensive to individuals or even groups of people.

I have no time for Stacey, he sounds like an idiot first class, and despite his lawyer's claims that he is a "kind and caring person" with friends of different ethnic backgrounds his actions suggest otherwise. He deserves to be treated with contempt, but sending him to jail is a dangerous step.

As some free speech advocates have said there are reasons to be concerned that the sentence was too harsh. The judge’s reasoning that “he had no choice” but to impose a jail term is absurd. The sentence he admitted was entirely driven “by public outrage” and yet this is precisely the argument used by tyrants around the world to jail scores of dissident writers and journalists each year.

No mitigation was allowed. The fact that Stacey was drunk at the time; that he had been isolated and condemned across the Internet; that one consequence of all this may be the end of his university career (he’s due to take finals in a couple of months); and that there was no evidence of him inciting others or his actions causing further harm all counted for nothing.

Yet Stacey’s treatment is in marked contrast to that of another student, Joshua Cryer, also aged 21, who last week admitted using Twitter to abuse the broadcaster and former footballer Stan Collymore, who also campaigns against racism. The Newcastle University student admitted a charge of sending grossly offensive messages but he escaped jail and was ordered that he complete a two-year community order with 240 hours unpaid work.

Passing sentence, the judge, in a rational and measured comment, said it would not serve society to send Cryer to jail, but he would make an example of Cryer, who had acted in a way which was “foolish, immature, and pathetic”.

The different approach to the treatment of these two students demonstrates perfectly why legal limits on hate speech and racism require tolerance in the delivery of justice. Racism is a fact of life which must be constrained but it should only mean jail-time for the ignorant and stupid among us when there is a danger of imminent harm to others.

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