Let me first say I didn’t want to write this post. But that pesky thing in my head that urges me to switch laundry loads and to avoid throwing full cans of beer at David Beckham hasn’t let up since I first read the news. So here goes, conscience, I hope you’re happy.

I don’t feel comfortable with the arrest by police of 21 year-old Welsh bell-end and complete and utter waste of space Liam Stacey for the crime of posting some appalling racist abuse about Fabrice Muamba on Twitter.

In case you don’t know who Stacey is (you really shouldn’t), here’s his story. As what usually happens in the face of an awful tragedy such as that which befell Fabrice Muamba on Saturday, people took to social media to express both their shock and support for the player, his family, the staff at the London chest hospital.

But some Tweeters out of lurid curiosity went out in deliberate search for the type of person who would post abusive messages about said event, and one in particular—Liam Stacey—was happy to oblige. I won’t link to his bile; it’s the Internet, so if you really want to read it, you know what to do. I will simply say that Liam did not have many followers, and the world would not know him had several hundreds of thousands of Twitter users not been on the deliberate look-out for the type of human being who would write what he wrote, and willing to RT it for a mass audience. They, of course, are not deemed complicit by the powers-that-be, although one wonders why not under the UK’s stringent anti- hate speech laws.

I don’t want to hash out a long legal argument over the limits of free speech in the face of bigotry (Wikipedia, as ever, lays the arguments on either side quite succinctly). I’m a writer (no really), so I tend to side with Evelyn Beatrice Hall’s famous dictum: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” I don’t have any personal sympathy with the man (who would?), but I don’t think it’s healthy for a modern democracy to criminalize speech, which is merely kinetic thought.

The use of such laws is clearly meant to be a deterrent, but any time the state can prosecute you for expressing what you think, no matter how vile, it does little to address the core problem: bigotry itself. Rather it gives the illusion that the state will take care of it, so you just keep calm and carry on. But bigotry is a problem of culture, not the law. Once you criminalize a belief or a thought, you give it the dubious honour of being ‘subversive.’ You don’t allow a forum for the haters to expose themselves, or the means for a culture to address the problem from the inside out.

So the state have made their example of Stacey, and the public is satisfied. Few will bother to question the effectiveness of hate speech laws, or their place within a healthy democracy. But the next time tragedy strikes there will be another arsehole on Twitter to take his place, and, perhaps more sadly, thousands more who will oblige them by seeking out their bile and displaying it to the world.

Comments (28)

  1. Richard I agree with you in that arresting the guys who were responsible for tweeting that filth shouldn’t be arrested. I feel there are better ways to spend tax payer money. However they should be some sort of punishment for abusing their right to free speech. Twitter can be a fantasitc tool to spread information. However it’s misuse, and the misuse of other social media sites should better police itself when it comes to these incidents. Arresting these guys only gives them a platform for their hate, cutting them off from Twitter, Facebook, Goggle+ etc seems a reasonable punishment in this digital communications mad world.

  2. RW,

    I am confused at the purpose of your writing. Why express yourself unless you hope to profoundly impact your reader’s lives in some manner. And what expression of impact is more sincere than the actions that follow.

    I see you as being idealistic on this topic. I understand that everyone should have the right to free speach and criminalizing speech is not a path that mdern society should follow however in response to your argument, I suggest that Liam’s twitter rant was not speech.

    The world is full of hatred and even if you believe that it is every bigot’s right to believe his hatred, you must agree that it is morally wrong to spread it. Our laws are based on morals, therefore the criminalization of hate spreading and bigotry is a tool that society has created to fight this evil.

    Free thoughts and dialogue between opposing perspectives is positive; it creates progress. I don’t think that anti hate laws impeed progress; what they do is allow those who cannot protect themselves a more secure environment to live in.

    My final thoughts are that I believe you stopped yourself short instead of making a stand to encourage your readers to take action against something which you believe is wrong. Your forum encouraged positive dialouge among like minded people but action is required to change the world. Action is required to counter the hatred that is spread everyday in this world.

    Ironically, i think that you achieved what I criticized you most for. Your writings made me respond and I thank you for that.

    Health recovery Muaba !!


  3. “There was a time when we’d take a guy like you in the back and beat you with a hose. Now you’ve got your God-damned unions.” – Captain O’Hagan (Super Troopers)

    My attitude towards Mr. Stacey AKA F%&#in twat..

  4. That wasn’t such a bad post…

  5. This is a ridiculous post. You may go out of your way to inform everyone you’re a writer, but you clearly have zero grasp of the laws regarding freedom of speech. It’s often advisable, when trying to make it as any kind of journalist, to do your research.

    Freedom of speech is not, never has been, and has never claimed to be absolute. This is just some lazy idea for those types who blindly venerate this vague idea of ‘the people’ and ‘democracy’ If a primary school teacher decided to start teaching his mix-race class of children that Hitler was a great man and all blacks and Jews should be killed, can he be expected to keep his job because “he was only expressing his opinion”? No. Because his speech oversteps the line between his right to express himself and the CONTEXT in which he does it. And that, right there, is where the law comes into play. BECAUSE freedom of speech is such a powerful idea and right, there are very exact laws designed to keep it from being DELIBERATELY abused, and those laws revolve around the venue in which thoughts are expressed, often known as public indecency laws amongst other terms. You can say anything you want in this country, PROVIDED the AIM of your thoughts is not merely to offend as many people as possible, and PROVIDED those thought express some kind of view-point, not just ‘death to so-and–so’. Again, if you think that the laws of this land encompass absolute freedom of speech, go to a synagogue and shout “Death to Jews”, and see how long you last. However, go to that same synagogue and give some kind of articulate speech about your anti-Semitic views, you’ll be allowed to. Why the hell do you think people chanting racist abuse at football matches are arrested? You never wondered about this?

    Freedom of speech laws are finely counter-balanced against public indecency laws. THIS is why the young idiot was arrested. Not because he’s a cretin (for which, sadly, people cannot be arrested) but because he broke the law!

    You, as an aspiring journalist, should have known that before writing this ill-informed nonsense.

    • Your examples have absolutely nothing to do with freedom of speech issues. If I want to offend a plethora of people, that is absolutely fine. It’s why those puke Westboro Baptist Church assholes can go to troop funerals chanting “God Hates Fags” and lord only knows what other crazy shit. Their rights to free speech are constitutionally protected.

      A schoolteacher can say whatever the hell he or she wants. They just may no longer have a job after doing so, but that is at the discretion of the employer. A teacher signs a contract stipulating that their employment is subject to adherence to a code of conduct, one which ALWAYS contains a line item denoting the teacher’s duty to make all students feel welcome in school. Something tells me spreading Nazism to schoolchildren would go against that code.

      In addition, while I know many European countries have anti-Nazi laws, I’m pretty sure that if I went to a synagogue in Canada or the States and chanted anti-semitic slurs, I would not be charged so long as I wasn’t trespassing. None of these examples explain why comments made online, as long as they aren’t threatening violence against others, should be considered illegal.

      • You’re talking about North America. The article writer is talking about Britain, where this incident took place. The Westboro Baptist Church are free to spout all the crap they want in America…but are banned from entering Britain. Shirley Phelps has actually been banned from here for years now.

        We have much more stringent laws regarding ‘freedom of expression’ that you have in North America, and THAT was the point of my post. The article writer was effectively saying it was wrong that the idiot was arrested. I am saying: no, it wasn’t wrong. It was exactly in line with British law.

        • Good to know I live in the “free” part of the world. Thanks.

          • Dude, what’s your problem, we’re just discussing laws here, you don’t need to get defensive. It’s not a question about which system is right or wrong, it’s about the article writer’s misunderstanding of the law of the country in which the incident took place. Talking about what is, as you wrote, “constitutionally protected” is irrelevant when discussing an incident that took place in Britain (did you read the actual article? If so, I’m not sure why you started writing about the US constitution), which does not have a constitution.

        • The law and justice are not the same thing. If a starving peasant poached deer from his liege lord’s grounds, he would be breaking the law, but also be doing a morally upright thing to feed his family who are starving because of the inherent injustice of teh feudal system.

          Richard, Dan and I believe that UK anti-hate speech laws are too stringent. You disagree. The best way to prove your point wouldn’t be to argue with us (the merits of a free discussion bolster our point), but to lock us in the Tower of London.

      • Please do some research before you start mouthing off. A school teacher cannot say whatever he/she wants. Have you ever heard of R. v. Keegstra? R. v. Krymowski? These were landmark cases in Canadian history and you simply ignore them. Bloody hell.

      • I can’t believe I actually agree with Dan!

        Free speech is never absolutely free (Oliver Wendell Holmes’ fire in a crowded theatre example), but I think it should be as pretty close to absolute as it can be. When an idea becomes illegal and underground, it becomes cool. The best way to combat hateful speech/ideas is with a better, more convincing idea.

        A poster mentioned that speech should be used to protect minorities: in the Stacey example, HE is the minority. A stupid, lone arsehole who is being prosecuted for being stupid. I don’t think that’s right.

    • Dave, it seems you think I don’t know that hate speech is against the law in the UK. Most of what you have to say follows from that premise, curious as I linked to two separate articles listing every stricture of UK hate law since 1986. My issue, I think quite clearly, is the laws themselves, their effectiveness, their place in a free society. If you have arguments to that effect, I will be more than happy to address them.

      You also conflate free speech with incitement, which is a red herring. Stacey did not “incite” anyone to violence, he merely typed out 140 characters of racist/offensive drivel.

  6. Stupid people saying stupid things with damning proof of their stupidity.

    Hooray for social media!

  7. I don’t think anyone should be let off the hook for taking to twitter (or any avenue for that matter) and spewing their racist speech. Surely there is a limit to freedom of speech that doesn’t allow for this type of thing.

  8. The point of the article is not that freedom speech dictates that te guy had a ‘right’ to an opinion, but that punishing him does nothing to combat the prejudice (and the causes of this prejudice) that gave rise to such stupid statements.

    The article does not seem to me as though it would advocate letting the guy off but that there is surely something wrong with a public that goes looking for this kind of opinion and then publicises it further when it finds it (which i’m not sure if I agree with or not)

    and also:

    that other measures are needed in order to stop this sort of thing happening in the first place (which I definately agree with).

  9. I think this is more or less the crux of your article, as you quoted:

    “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

    Unfortunately, I have to say this is a little too simplistic. We have more rights than free speech, and sometimes things conflict with each other. I would guess that safety comes into the picture somewhere as does a right to protect someone’s reputation (slander).

    I have no idea what the little nitwit said (couldn’t find it anywhere) so i can’t comment on whether I think it’s worthy of charges, but we can’t just take the right to free speech as an absolute.

    • Nowhere in this article did I say that right was “absolute.” Incitement to violence is a crime, as it should be. As is slander, libel, death threats, etc. The Stacey case arguably involved none of these except for a young man bleating out offensive statements broadly and rightly condemned by the vast majority. This is an area where free speech clearly trumps other concerns.

      I have to say it’s getting a wee bit tiresome to defend myself over arguments I did not make.

      • Well within any short article there’s going to be some ambiguity for those reading, especially when you talk about something like this that diffuses in just about every direction.

        What people are arguing about these offensive statements he made is that they can create conditions that when multiplied effectively can make someone threatened. Especially if it happens on a mass scale so all the more important to tramp out the individual idiot.

        This is basically how all these hateful organizations south of the boarder operate. They never go out and say anything directly that would put them in violation of laws, but they infer things and create conditions that spread problems to the nth degree.

        I think contrary to your point, societal norms can be legislated if there is momentum behind them (which I would say there is in this case). Hence the changes and the way this was handled is potentially conducive to creating a less hateful society.

        • There was no ambiguity. Either I said that or I did not. And I couldn’t disagree more on “legislating social norms.” Is this really your vision of a free and open society?

          The cost of free speech sadly is groups like Jonesboro Baptist Church. They already receive a disproportionate share of press (mostly for being despicable pricks), but could you imagine the press they would earn if they were arrested en masse for protesting? Not that that would happen; the constitution cannot simply be waived away for the sake of removing odious opinion from mainstream society.

          And that’s the point here, too. Would we even be discussing Stacey or his ugliness if he hadn’t been arrested for Tweeting? You cannot “arrest” a point of view, you can only argue against it, to the death, forever.

          • There’s no ambiguity? Come on now, you quoted the person directly in the article and preceding it with “I tend to side with”. Then when you’ve been questioned about what that means you retort with “well either I said it or I didn’t”. Not true. You’ve left key aspects of your argument open enough where its not clear what you’re saying. Your article (hardly a comprehensive piece, nor is it expected to be) leaves room for interpretation.

            As for the issue itself and “arresting someone for a point of view”, it goes further than that. Collectively actions like his can be used to make others feel unsafe, threatened, and ostracized. It can also be used as fuel to motivate others to take action, especially when used on a larger platform like social media.

  10. A healthy democracy should criminalize hate speech.

  11. Completely agree with Richard. I have always found it strange that racism was illegal in the UK. The Government has no place regulating what we can and cannot say, unless it involves incitement towards violent action. Freedom of speech is supposed to allow a free market of ideas to circulate throughout society. Obviously there are going to be some bad ones, but you cannot pick and choose which ones are allowed and which are not. This would defeat the whole purpose of a freedom of ideas and speech.

  12. The problem with criminalizing “hate speech” is that it requires the definition of “protected classes” who cannot be spoken against. By defining these protected classes, the government is in over their heads, as would be any individual. So right now, maybe you can’t say anything bad about someone who is black, or who is gay, or obese, for example, but you can bash the pope, or a skinny person, or a policeman with impunity. I understand why we feel certain classes of people may need a helping hand now, but how to decide when the tides shift and the protected classes must shift? How to know when one class of people changes from underdog to top dog, and who is going to take away their protection then?

    These laws are short-sighted and while they offer veneer of civility, they also drive healthy debate and discussion out of the picture by threatening anyone not in a protected class. Say something unpopular, and if someone complains you might be sent to jail! Can we not see that this is dangerous? Unless you can enforce laws against ALL speech that is offensive and hateful, regardless of the target, trying to enforce offensive speech selectively is only going to create more division among people.

    People, let’s understand that progress isn’t made by enforcing general ignorance, it is made by education and cooperation. It’s hard to believe how many people really don’t THINK about these things. Kudos to the blogger for his careful consideration of the topic.

  13. You hit the nail on the head for me. “…but I don’t think it’s healthy for a modern democracy to criminalize speech, which is merely kinetic thought. ” About sums it up for me.

  14. I also wanted to add that I find it amazing that all the news reports of the incident, fail to include the ‘offensive messages’ in question. How are we to make an informed decision on another’s guilt if we do no know what crime he has committed. They’re up here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nA5v2eZ5ZZE

  15. “But bigotry is a problem of culture, not the law.”

    Just denying that there are causes for bigotry will not help the problem much either. People should acknowledge that there are many effects that contribute to bigotry, and work on fixing those.

    A first one would be that you know your own culture. This may sound obvious but it also means that you will be much better at predicting the actions of someone of your own subgroup than predicting those of someone outside of that. The problem with this, of course, is that this is abused.

    There are laws, and there is “how it’s done”. And if you take the example of selling something, you will find that what exactly the seller guarantees varies wildly by culture. What buyers expect from a seller is very simple : what they’d expect themselves to do. And frankly, there’s too many chinese and middle eastern websites exploiting this, knowing most people will not involve the law (which is too expensive anyway).

    The same goes for education. When an American says “I was educated in so-and-so in such-and-such college, you know what you’re in for. When a European claims the same, you don’t really know (although mostly they’ll do better than you think). And when a middle-eastern person claims to be educated, well … sorry … but on average they don’t match the level we would associate with state college dropouts. I know there are positive exceptions to this. The problem of course, is that the entrepreneurs that have to decide whether they trust the guy have to do so by the credential, without long-term experience with the person, and they’re risking a lot of money if they say “yes”, and not much by saying “no”.

    And frankly, just go to Europe and see for yourself. Muslims will claim “marriage” is … well marriage. There’s a contingent of women who failed to check, or (more often) didn’t believe, what muslims mean by marriage (I think I can safely say muslims here, as of course marriage is defined by the religion). Of course, I’ve yet to hear the first case of the muslim in question correcting the woman’s vision of what marriage means in islam, or refusing to use the sexist laws concerning marriage in islam.

    Although this is perhaps due to the fact that happy people usually don’t complain. There’s plenty of abuse of women’s (Christian) ideas on marriage by muslims who intend to follow the islamic version though.

    I am not saying these situations are okay. I’m just saying that without solving these problems, you’ll just make the situation worse.

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