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.