Kenny Farquharson: Twitter jailing should concern all right-thinking people
OVER the years, I’ve heard things said in playgrounds, on football terraces, in bars and in newspaper newsrooms that would make your hair curl. Racist, homophobic, sectarian, misogynistic things that represent some of the worst manifestations of human malevolence short of physical harm.
I’m sure you’ve heard plenty too in your own spheres of life. Some are said for effect, some in a misplaced attempt at humour, some out of dumb ignorance and some as a genuine expression of pure hatred. My particular dislike is when disgusting things are said under a cloak of what the speaker intends as post-modern irony. Yeah, very clever. Idiot.
Yet out of all those occasions, I can think of only a handful I would categorise as criminal acts. One involved a foul- mouthed fan of an Old Firm club – it doesn’t matter which – on a train. The other happened in a Coventry pub when a drunk white man took offence at a fellow customer being black and having a white girlfriend. These were criminal acts due to the risk they posed to public order in that train and in that bar – their potential for causing fear and alarm; their potential to lead to violence.
I’m proud of the few times when I challenged what was being said, and I’m ashamed of the more frequent times when I said nothing. All and every kind of comment in the categories of hate I have described is abhorrent. But do I think every person who said these things should be locked up in a jail? No, of course not.
There is a difference between what is morally offensive – even morally repugnant – and what is a crime in the eyes of the law. And that’s how it should be, no matter how uncomfortable it may make us feel. It is not illegal simply to hate someone for their religion. It is not illegal to feel superior to someone with a different skin colour. It is not illegal to hate people with a different sexuality to your own. If it is, we’re going to need a bigger Barlinnie.
And so to the case of Liam Stacey, the 21-year-old Swansea student last week jailed for 56 days for what the charge sheet described as “racially aggravated public disorder”.
Lowlife doesn’t come much lower than Stacey. Faced with live TV pictures of Fabrice Muamba fighting for his life on a football pitch after collapsing in the middle of an FA Cup match, the drunk student posted a message on his Twitter account saying: “LOL [laugh out loud]. F*** Muamba. He’s dead!!!” When others on Twitter remonstrated angrily, Stacey let loose at them a torrent of violent and racist abuse.
Now, I don’t relish the idea of sticking up for such a scumbag as this young man, someone so seemingly devoid of the basic tenets of decency, but I’m afraid I’m going to have to – up to a point. Because if we are relaxed about Stacey going to jail for a couple of months to assuage our disgust at his views, then I think we have to ask ourselves some serious questions about the law and liberty and free speech.
Partly this is an argument about the new public spaces the social networking revolution has opened up online. Do we regard conversations in these spaces the same way as we would a conversation in a crowded pub or a train carriage? Or do we have to examine them on their own terms? Plainly, if Stacey had written his loathsome views in a few dozen letters and sent them by Royal Mail to his few dozen followers on Twitter, he would not now be in jail. Similarly, if he had bellowed his comment in a racially mixed bar, his incarceration would have been swift and beyond debate.
But on Twitter? Where exactly was the “public disorder” referred to in the charge? Where was the risk of someone getting hurt, or of someone being put in a state of fear or alarm? Does the “Twitter storm” he started online really carry the same risk to public order as a shouting match in the street? Of course, the vast majority of decent people would find Stacey’s comments utterly offensive and contemptible. But the law is not there to protect us from being offended. And it is not there to punish people for expressing views that elicit our disgust.
This is not just an issue about new technology. In recent years, there have been a number of new legal incursions into what we are and aren’t allowed to say. The Terrorism Act 2000 and the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 both caused concern for groups that defend the right to freedom of speech. And here in Scotland the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Act 2012 continues to cause disquiet – last month two Hibs fans became the first to be convicted under it, for singing songs that were described in court as “of a racially derogative nature”. Exactly what these songs were, no-one knows. This detail was not revealed in court, and police have subsequently refused to say. So much for the “strong signal of deterrence” the police claimed the case represented.
There’s a phrase you sometimes see in a newspaper columns, and it always makes me uncomfortable. The phrase is “any right-thinking person...” It’s usually used to describe a set of social conventions adhered to by a group of people that regards itself as arbiters of morality. I dislike it because one right-thinking person is another’s hateful bigot. And, yes, I’m aware that the “decent people” I referred to earlier in this column are just another variation on the theme. Nonetheless, like everybody else I have my own view of what “right-thinking” means. To my mind, it is right to insist on a zero tolerance attitude to racism and homophobia and misogyny and sectarianism. It is right for people who express these views to be confronted, challenged, argued with and – if necessary – ostracised. But the rush to codify our opposition to their views in the law of the land, and to jail anyone who breaks our social bylaws, is something I think should concern us all.
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