Jail for student in Muamba Twitter race rant a perversion of justice

Swansea Student Liam Stacey has been sentenced to 56 days for a “racially aggravated public order offence” after tweeting a very poor taste joke about footballer Fabrice Muamba followed by several racist and inflammatory comments.

The 21-year-old claimed he had been drinking all day and was quite drunk by the time he’d sent tweets. This is most likely true. It was St Patrick’s Day and the last day of the Six Nations rugby championship, and quite a lot of people would have spent that day in the pub. But while it may be true, it’s hardly a defence.

Is Stacey a racist? A troll? A drunk and mouthy young man? Possibly a little of each. But none of these are illegal. Stacey’s conviction is for a public order offence.

One can understand why public order laws exist. The police may need to be able to take people off the streets to prevent imminent violence, and be able to punish people for causing disruptions.

But was there actually any risk that Stacey was threatening public order? I don’t think there was. A row on Twitter is not the same thing as shouting abuse in the street, where there may be immediate physical consequences. Twitter may be like a pub, in the sense that it’s a space for social interaction, but it’s definitely not the pub in that when tempers fray, no one’s going to get glassed. The worst that will happen is someone will block you.

Only one of Stacey’s tweets was violent in nature, and that did not contain any racial abuse. So has he been jailed for eight weeks solely for being offensive at a time when people on Twitter were congratulating themselves for the outpouring of goodwill to the fallen Muamba? If so, then people who care about free expression should be very, very worried.

Padraig Reidy is news editor at Index

How do we legislate for social media?

Another week and another case of a young man getting into trouble over social media postings.

Last week, it was Azhar Ahmed, who angrily ranted about soldiers on his Facebook page, and now faces trial under the Communications Act 2003 (though the initial charge that his posting had been “racially aggravated” has been dropped).

This week, it is Swansea student Liam Stacey. Twenty-one-year-old Stacey today pleaded guilty of a “racially aggravated public order offence” after he tweeted racist remarks about Bolton Wanderers footballer Fabrice Muamba, and then addressed further racist remarks at tweeters who challenged him. (you can view Stacey’s now-deleted timeline here. Very strong language http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nA5v2eZ5ZZE).

The two cases have several common elements. Both involve social networking sites. Both involve young men. Both outbursts were reactions to widespread, communal grief.

And both raise the question: is the law as it stands fit for purpose? The pace at which social media changes the way we communicate is startling, even though the intuitive nature of much of the technology we use makes it seem normal. It is difficult now for many to remember life before Twitter, and almost impossible to think of life before YouTube, just seven years ago. We do not really think of posting a tweet or a Facebook status update as “publishing” or “sending a message” in the same way as printing a leaflet or even sending a text message.

The Twitter Joke Trial rightly upset many people, who saw in the prosecution of Paul Chambers a misunderstanding of both the message and the medium. But the question is, can a law be formulated that will accommodate free expression online? Or, given the changing nature of electronic communication, is any law doomed to obsolescence?

Padreig Reidy is Index on Censorship’s news editor