Liam Stacey and the Right to Free Speech

Much has been in the news this week about Liam Stacey, the student who was sentenced to 56 days in jail for posting offensive tweets about the footballer Fabrice Muamba. While many are pleased that this troll has been punished (his appeal against his conviction has as of today also been dismissed), there are also a number who see his conviction as extreme, and have brought up the old “freedom of speech” chestnut.

My view on it is this: Stacey’s punishment might seem excessive to some, but he nonetheless deserved it. He was posting sick, racist tweets about a person who was seriously ill and used abusive and threatening language to those who challenged him. He had no regard for who he was upsetting and somehow revelled in it. Only when it occurred to him that he had been reported to the police did he panic and give the old excuse that all internet trolls give when they are found out “It wasn’t me guv, my account was hacked.” He wasn’t sorry for what he had said as he was that he’d been caught and was facing the prospect of not only getting kicked out of university, but of messing up his future career prospects. He brought it all on himself.

For the most part, I am firmly on the side of Voltaire on the issue of free speech:

“I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

However, there are times when I feel that it is far more appropriate to defend the right of people to not be exposed to language that is inflammatory, intimidating, and prejudiced, whether it be online or in real life. People should be able to use the Internet, and in particular sites like Twitter and Facebook without being subjected to abuse and vile comments from some numbskull who is somehow capable of operating a computer never mind has access to one.

What Stacey did was the online equivalent of walking down the street, drunk as a skunk, spouting racist nonsense that an EDL member would approve of, while intimidating passers-by. For that, he would have also been arrested by the police and likely facing a custodial sentence. His was an anti-social act as well as a hate crime. The fact that he committed his crime on twitter doesn’t make it any less serious.

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2 thoughts on “Liam Stacey and the Right to Free Speech

  1. If you want to ban speech that is “prejudiced” then you might find some of your own posts would be banned. And “inflammatory”? Surely you sometimes make people angry. Couldn’t you be described as using “infammatory” speech?
    By your reasoning, it would be very difficult for anyone to have a debate at all.

    I personally think we should only make incitement and substantial harassment illegal. That is the situation in America, and remember that they have a black President.
    There are very few restrictions on speech in America because it is protected in their Constitution.

    What Liam Stacey did was *not* the equivalent of intimidating complete strangers in the street, by the way.
    He was name-calling online. That hardly has the same effect as intimidating someone in person.
    He was also responding to abusive and threatening posts sent to him, but nobody so far has been prosecuted. Why not?

    If you had read the tweets (as I have) you would see that they were quite juvenile and nobody in their right mind would be distressed by them. They were clearly a very immature attempt at humour.

    The European Commissioner for Human Rights has condemned the sentence as excessive and wrong. He’s right.
    This was a political case, and we should be ashamed that Britain is locking up drunken 21 year olds for stupid posts on the internet, whilst serious violent criminals walk free.
    We have our priorities all wrong, but that’s what happens when “race” is mentioned… sense goes out the window!

    • Thank you for your comments. I don’t often post about things that are in the news as no matter how much I understand the story and have the opinion it’s sometimes difficult to say it in the right words. I respect your opinions, but I would like to clarify a few of my own points:

      1. Stacey deserved to be punished. My comment that it was excessive but deserved came from the fact that I had heard people say that it was extreme that his case had even gone to court. Personally, I think that community service would have been a better sentence for him. Even so, I was glad that his appeal was rejected as I think that would have caused an even bigger outcry.

      2. I did read his tweets, and yes they were immature but no matter how much you believe that no-one should have been offended or distressed by them the fact is some were. Enough to report him to the police. At the time he chose to post his tweets emotions were clearly running high on twitter. People were upset enough by the news of Fabrice Muamba without some idiot with a keyboard making light of it – with a bit of racism thrown in. And I certainly did not think those who hit back at Stacey with abuse were right in doing so.

      3. You are right that the British justice system is screwed up. It is wrong that people who have committed violent crimes can be let off with suspended sentences or let out of jail after serving only a few years of a life sentence. I also find it disgusting that someone can knock down and kill someone while three times over the drink drive limit and/or doing well over 40mph and be given nothing more than a fine and points on their licence.

      4. Stacey’s crime was not a political issue until some people started turning it into one when he was jailed. Were any of these people crying foul when he was arrested? Surely if they cared about his freedom of speech they would have been condemning the police for arresting him? Maybe I was looking in the wrong place, but I didn’t see anyone saying the police were wrong to arrest him nor did I see anyone having a go at those who reported him.

      5. I was probably wrong to say his crime was the “online equivalent of walking down the street, drunk as a skunk, spouting racist nonsense that an EDL member would approve of, while intimidating passers-by.” It was probably more “sitting in a football stadium, drunk as a skunk, racially abusing a black player in a rival team”. Whatever, he would still have been done for a public order offence. We don’t tolerate racism in a public place, so why should it be any different online? Twitter is technically a public place as well, for the most part.

      6. I have no desire to make it hard for people to have a reasonable debate, no matter how much it seems that way in my post. Nor do I want to see an internet where it’s all “nicey-nicey” and everyone agrees with each other. I do believe, however that in having the right to free speech comes great responsibility. That doesn’t mean that I think that everyone who says something racist, homophobic, derogatory to other groups, or just something I don’t like deserves to be locked up. Again, I’ve probably not explained myself clearly here.

      Anyway, thanks for your thoughts.

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