A student’s racist tweets

Liam Stacey, a 21-year-old student, was sentenced to 56 days in prison for posting racially offensive comments on Twitter, writes Maryam Omidi.

The case

In March 2012, British student Liam Stacey was sentenced to 56 days in jail for posting racially offensive comments on Twitter. The remarks were directed at Bolton Wanderers footballer Fabrice Muamba, who had collapsed during a match following a cardiac arrest. A number of Twitter users swiftly criticised Stacey for the racist nature of his comments; he responded with a further eight “abusive and insulting” tweets.

As news of Stacey’s comments began to spread, the 21-year-old claimed his account had been hacked. He even attempted to delete his page. When questioned by police, he said he had been drunk at the time of tweeting. According to the Crown Prosecution Service blog, Stacey was charged with a racially aggravated offence under section 4A of the Public Order Act 1986. Under this provision, an offence can be racially aggravated if it causes “intentional harassment, alarm or distress”.

The sentence has sparked debate in the media and on social networking sites, with some backing the judiciary’s decision to make an example of Stacey while others have called the punishment excessive. Thomas Hammarberg, the former Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, criticised the sentence as disproportionate: “Politicians are at a bit of a loss to know how to … protect internet freedom while having regulations against [such problems as] hate speech and child pornography.”

Author opinion

While I think racism is unacceptable and Stacey’s tweets reveal the author to be a rather misguided individual, the rationale behind his harsh sentence appears somewhat muddled. His tweets may have disgusted other Twitter users but I doubt they felt harassed, alarmed or distressed. Sentencing Stacey under the Public Order Act begs the question: how did he disrupt the public order?

The reason for the disproportionate sentence seems to me twofold. Firstly, as Hammarberg suggests, the authorities are still figuring this virtual versus real stuff out. But a second, and perhaps more significant reason, was the striking contrast between a 23-year-old footballer fighting for survival and a similarly aged student seizing on the moment to post racist, derisive comments. Muamba’s collapse had elicited widespread public sympathy and by the same measure, Stacey’s tweets, revulsion. It’s difficult not to think that the judge’s decision was in some way influenced by the very public nature of these events.

- Maryam Omidi

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Comments (25)

Automated machine translations are provided by Google Translate. They should give you a rough idea of what the contributor has said, but cannot be relied on to give an accurate, nuanced translation. Please read them with this in mind.

  1. The more powerful social media becomes the more control is being forced upon social channels by the governments of different countries. The strongest feature that attracts so many users to the social media channels today is the freedom of expressing ideas. If governments destroy the freedom of speech online, people will stop expressing their true feeling and ideas, a big percentage of social media users are going to be repressed and forced into being fake. It is also unfair to punish few people for expressing their ideas, no matter how ethical or unethical these ideas are, since daily social users keep posting millions of offensive comments from all over the world on the internet with anonymous contact details. So why should we punish these who at least use their real identity to express what they think?

  2. As much as I agree that racism should not be tolerated in our society today hearing these news are quite shocking to me.
    What happened to freedom of expression? Yes, the expression may not be moral, but still – aren’t we supposed to be able to interact freely with others on such social networking sites, without being judged, and in worst case like this – punished?
    Would this happen in real life, say a person officially insults another person of other skin colour than himself, would he be sentenced to prison? Unless there was violence involved, I highly doubt that.
    Don’t get me wrong, I don’t say that the girl didn’t do anything wrong. I’m just upset about how this incident was handled. The use of such rigid control of what we say on Twitter reminds me of the power exercised by the totalitarian regime depicted in George Orwell’s highly controversial novel Nineteen-Eightyfour. If we can’t say anything publicly without being controlled or judged then where is our freedom of speech?!

  3. I agree that racism was not accepted, but I think this case is very difficult to be decided whether it is seriously crime or not. I see the difficulty of defining the limit of freedom on internet in this case. His posting- racially offensive comments on Twitter obviously disgusted some people, but I wonder if the case should not have been taken to the court…I mean, I think the judgement was too strict. The harsh comment was on Twitter and it made peoples’ feeling bad actually. But it was just his mutter on Twitter. It was not intended to harass the human right really. I think he just posted it as what he thought at the moment. He did not consider the content well. It is the pitfall of social media. We use social media light-heartedly and freely, which is the cause of popularity of social media such as FB and Twitter in the modern time. For example, we open blogs to the public as we keep diary- we write blogs reflecting on our thoughts like muttering. We usually do not care about others in own social media; we do not consider how many audiences are there on the internet: beyond countries. Therefore, the use of social media includes contradiction. We want to use social media to post our thoughts freely and to connect with people feeling freely, but at the same time the posts can be seen by enormous number of people and it can be strictly judged by them. We want to use social media freely, but internet does not allow free as much as we expect.

  4. It’s horrible that people get convicted for stuff they say on Twitter.

  5. It’s decidedly hard to make a clear opinion because I believe there’s a lack of information on this case. Nevertheless, racism is a belief that should not exist in this modern and “just” world. But we all know things are not this way, racist conducts still exist and it’s something very hard to eliminate or destroy.
    I believe that the actions taken over Liam Stacey have gone too far. If it is true that the student posted inappropriate racist comments, it is also true that he is not the only person in the social networks that does this type of things. Laws and rules should be applied to everybody. I am not in favour of Stacey, but I believe this is not the best solution to end with the racial issues that still exist.

  6. I do hope so to, we must keep in mind that children and young teenagers also read those comments and not always critically access the information. In Vkontakte.ru, Russian social network website there were and still are plenty of racism and religious intolerance including those saying “you’ll be dead soon”. I beg the authorities to stop fomentation of hostility and hatred online as social media has a major influence in the modern life. We already have enough negative let’s not indulge it.

  7. Your comment is awaiting moderation.

    Res je, da večina današnjih družb temelji na svobodi govora. Zanjo so se mnogi dolgo borili skozi zgodovino in dan danes si najbrž ne predstavljamo, kako bi bilo, če ne bi smeli na glas izraziti svojih misli. Obstaja pa tanka meja med svobodo govora ter rasizmom in žaljenjem. Nekateri na žalost ne razumejo, da ni na mestu, če vse svoje predsodke in neargumentirane zamere, delijo celemu svetu po internetu, četudi si lahko ustavarjajo profile na stotinah javnih omrežij in četudi živijo v ‘svobodnih državah’.
    Svoboda vsakega bi morala segati do tja, kjer še ne krati svobode nekoga drugega.
    Naj bo kazen za tega mladeniča pretirana ali ne, dejstvo je, da kazen mora biti. Rasizma in netolrenatnosti se ne sme prenašati, čeprav to pomeni majhno omejitev svobode govora nekoga drugega.

  8. V zadnjem času je internet postal praktično poligon za povzročanje nestrpnosti. Nekateri posamezniki z veseljem izkoriščajo anonimnost na raznih forumih in klepetalnicah, kjer se grdo “spotaknejo” ob vsakogar drugače mislečega. To bodo počeli dokler bodo imeli možnost in dokler se bo to dopuščalo. menim, da je takšno vedenje vsekakor potrebno preprečiti. žal pa se zaradi obsežnosti (zaenkrat) celotnega dogajanja na internetu ne da kontrolirati, kaj šele obvladovati. sicer, se mi zdi obtožba, ki je doletela Liama močno pretirana.navsezadnje ni edini, ki je to počel, pa vendar eden redkih, ki je bil dejansko kaznovan. na tem mestu se strinjam, da se takemu posamezniku pripiše kazen. vendar naj bo ta primerna njegovi kršitvi (npr. cenzura,izbris žaljivih komentarjev, izbris profila, preprečitev novega..itd)

  9. Spremljal sem tekmo, ko se je Fabrice zgrudil in negibno obležal. Kot nogometaš se zavedam nevarnosti na igrišču in srčni napad ni šala in ne razumem zakaj bi se nekdo iz tega delal norca, saj se lahko kaj takega pripeti tudi norcu. Mislim, da je zaporna kazen korektna in kot zgled proti takšnemu nezrelemu obnašanju.

  10. Nikad neću razumeti rasistički pogled na svet. Živimo u modernom dobu i ovakvim stavovima se ništa ne postiže. Ljude treba ceniti. Lični kvaliteti i osobine su bitni, boja kože svakako nije presudna u oceni određene osobe!

  11. Tudi če gre za žalitev preko spletne strani, se nanjo ne sme gledati drugače kot če bi bila ta žalitev rečena osebno in se ne sme spregledati. Res je, da je na svetu še veliko več hujših stvari, katere je treba zaustaviti in katerim je treba dati več pozornosti ter te probleme rešiti a vendarle je zelo pomembno, kako se ljudje obnašamo tudi preko spletnih strani, raznih forumov itd. Če bi to ignorirali, bi ljudjem to dalo za vedeti, da lahko počnejo in pišejo kar hočejo in bi se počutili povsem varne omaloževati druge in iz tega lahko pride do še večjega nasilja, če se ne ustavi.

  12. V današnji družbi je svoboda govora ena od temeljnih pravic posameznika. S tem namenom so tudi ustvarjeni spletni portali, kot so twitter, facebook in podobni, na njih lahko torej prosto izražamo svoje mnenje brez večjih posledic.

    Seveda, ko in če pride do rasističnih in zlo namernih komentarjev le-ti niso zaželjeni in sem osebno odločno proti njim, vendar pa se mi zdi, da je 56 dnevna zaporna kazen absolutno pretirana. Iz članka dejansko ne vem za kakšne komentarje je šlo, vendar je dogodek verjetno pridobil medijsko pozornost le za to, ker je Liam žalil svetovno prepoznanega nogometaša.

    Tukaj se potem lahko vprašam, zakaj torej niso kaznovani tudi vsi drugi, ki po različnih spletnih portalih objavljajo sovražne in rasistične komentarje, ne le o zvezdnikih ampak tudi o navadnih smrtnikih.

    Če povzamem je zaporna kazen za rasistične komentarje pretirana in se z njo ne strinjam.

  13. Kot je bilo že v zgornjih komentarjih omenjeno, je članek nekoliko nepopoln, zato je težko zagovarjati tako eno kot drugo stran.
    Ni navedeno, kakšni so ti Liamovi tweeti dejansko bili oziroma kako zelo žaljivi so bili.

    Menim, da takšna kazen vsekakor ni primerna, saj so tovrstni spletni portali namenjeni izražanju lastnega mnenja, ne glede na to kakšno le to je. Dotični portal pa ima pravzaprav še celo funkcijo, da lahko vsak posameznik sam določa, čigave tweete želi prebirati oziroma, kdo lahko prebira njegove. To pomeni, da bi ljudje lahko enostavno ignorirali obsojenega in do tega sploh ne bi prišlo – glede na njegovo starost je verjetno to počel predvsem zaradi želje po pozornosti in je svoj namen pravzaprav tudi dosegel.

    Zato je po mojem mnenju njegova 56 dnevna zaporna kazen popolnoma neutemeljena, saj ni z ničemer ogrožal javnega reda in miru oziroma varnosti državljanov, dobil pa je višjo kazen kot marsikateri dejanski zločinec.

  14. I don’t think there is enough information given in this article to really make an appropriate reaction. If the comments were directly aimed at defaming Muamba, then the comments could I guess be seen as libel.

    If the comments were directly aimed towards Muamba in a manner that was threatening then they could potentially be seen as assault.

    On the other hand, if they were just comments making a general racist sentiment, then nothing should be done. Just as the Westboro Baptist Church has every right to protest military funerals, this would also fall under free speech. While the WBC is despicable, they are not directly threatening or slandering a specific person in an abusive way.

  15. We live in an Era that racism is no longer excepted.People have to start looking at others without analyzing the color,status,or physical characteristics.Twitter is an open social network.Before you post something think you can be hurting someone that has nothing to do with your rotten soul.

    • You say yourself that Twitter is an open social network, and then advocate that we should restrict speech on the grounds that it might hurt someone’s feelings? Racism may be a current doubleplusungood to modern society, but that is no grounds for censoring it within a forum deliberately created for individuals to voice their individual opinions.

      • Here we are talking about common sense. While I think that your comment above lucascamarota’s is very true and I support it, I believe in the saying “you are free until you step beyond someone else’s freedom”. It is true that Twitter is an open social network, but making a racial comment in such a public space (which is meant for discussion) is disrespectful and should be denigrated by everyone. However, I agree that the punishment was very severe and might have been influenced by the rename of Fabrice Muamba.

  16. We live in a modern time that theres no space for racism. Because racism shows how limited is the thought of a racist peolple , and we can call that pre- concept also .

  17. In what free country can a man be jailed for speaking his mind? It is absolutely preposterous that this man was imprisoned for making a drunken nuisance of himself, of all places, on the INTERNET. Do we really feel threatened by a stranger’s posts on the internet so much that we feel the need to sic police on them? It is a disgusting example of a virtual lynchmob, and a moron drunk enough to continue egging them on. Perhaps the case can be made in a real-world situation, where a drunk and disorderly hooligan slings his slurs and perhaps threatens actual violence. But over the internet? What possible justification can be made for his imprisonment, other than that it was a voice that went against the accepted grain and suffered the consequence of that dissonance?

    If it is against Twitter’s Terms of Service, then suspend his account; the private organization has every right to show discretion at what is posted within its boundaries. But saying ‘racist comments have no place online’ is akin to saying ‘think my way, or else’. And that is from whence authoritarian control comes from. Just because you find someone’s words distasteful does NOT mean it should be outlawed, ESPECIALLY on the internet.

  18. Your comment is awaiting moderation.

    These racists comments are not acceptable in the modern society and should not be allowed in the real world nor the internet. The real discussion about this is: Why should this individual be the only one punished for these racist comments?

    Several individuals already have made racists comments but this individual was the one of the only ones punished with 56 days in prison due to the international media coverage of Fabrice Muamba. I believe if this individual was punished, others should be too.

  19. Public opinion often alters the opinion of decisions which should largely be unbiased. In this case the judge was correct in his verdict on the defendant. Racism while said to have been exterminated still does exist and should be eliminated. This hatred is not acceptable in the modern society that we live in.

  20. Here, we have an interesting debate about today’s society. The reason why this case took place is obviously due to the technological advances which are slowly taking with the world. I do believe in freedom of speech on the web, but I find ridiculous how many decades ago, people would fight for freedom of speech to show their ideals and influence the society as well, and nowadays it seems that people are just “wasting” it… It seems unbelievable that somebody is able to go to jail by tweeting racist comments. I believe that the sentence is correct, (for this guy), just because of the fact that he tried to justify and lie the authority, when he posted some racist comments on a social network that everybody read, and also because this comments are available to everybody. I don’t know if this sentence achieved to change Stacey’s mentality, but I am very sure, that next time he’ll tweet a racist comment, he’ll think it twice. To finish, my question is, should the authority seek for more cases as this one? Will this finally set the new generations as non-racist? If they start seeing racism as a bad thing…

  21. This case study demonstrates once more how important word choice is, not just in public speech, but furthermore in the internet through social media. Clearly his comments have no place in the internet. Although I do not use twitter, I believe just like with Facebook in the terms of use, there has to be a statement clarifying that such expressions have to be kept of the internet and prohibited online at all time.
    His comments have a two-fold reaction. Firstly he offends the football and above all all those who share the same ethnicity and racial background. Through “tweeting” his comment I believe his comments have created uproars as they were visible to the public sphere.
    Whether the sentence he received is fully justifiable that is up for the judges to make that decision. I just think that these expressions are beyond acceptable and have no place in the growing world that we live in. Through social medias like Twitter or Facebook we grow closer together and begin learning more about other cultures. Such comments do not show any form of acceptance of other ethnicities and hence don’t show the actual message of social medias, which are there in the first place to get to know other people from around the globe.

    • i agree that racist comments have no place online and should be regarded as an offense. It is also seen as an offense to verbally abuse someone, so why should racially offensive comments on twitter be treated any differently?
      People have to realize that they have to take responsibility for their actions and comments online just as in other forms of communication. Clearly Liam Stacey became aware of this only later on, when he tried to rid himself of the blame through these flimsy excuses. Comments posted online can be as hurtful and insulting as those from the “real” world and should be treated the same.

      • I agree to an extent? Does this case study even say if he was making a generalization which isn’t illegal? Or is he talking to a person or known group of people?

      • The only way I would agree to this punishment is if absolutely EVERY racist comment on any social networking sentence received some type of punishment (which I hope is the way it will work in the future)

      • You are most definitely right and I agree that the comments in the virtual world MUST be treated the same way. However there is no denying that it was a huge media coverage that Fabrice Muamba’s collapse on the pitch received, which led to such a harsh sentence. And although I do think that Liam deserved to recive a punishment for his actions, I believe it’s disproportionate to the “harm” he has caused. I do not use twitter and do not have any facebook friends posting any racially insulting comments, but I am willing to bet that there were thousands of other worse and more violent racial abuses on social networking websites which were left unpunished.

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