Posted Under: Racism/Fascism
‘We hope this case will serve as a warning to anyone who may think that comments made online are somehow beyond the law’ said the state prosecutor, after the prisoner was taken down in chains. Nope, this was not a gleeful state official in China or Iran who’d just given a dissenting blogger his just deserts. Rather, it was a CPS lawyer who’d had the pleasure of seeing student Liam Stacey being handed an utterly barmy prison sentence for a fairly minor twitter escapade.
Two months in prison and for what? A spot of twitter trolling – aggravated by racism and drink. The judge’s comments, upon handing down the sentence, were particularly bizarre. “Not just the footballer’s family, not just the footballing world, but the whole world were literally praying for Muamba’s life” said the judge. And so Stacey, presumably, had to be truly punished for being so very at odds with the prevailing public sentiment. Indeed the judge explicitly identified the “public outrage” generated by the case as his reason for imposing a custodial sentence. At this point, the whole scenario begins to look less like a 21st century court of law, and more like a 16th century village.
Aside from anything else, civil society proved itself eminently capable of dealing with Stacey’s racism without recourse to the poice and courts – as tweeters of all stripes righteously rounded on him. In this respect the case was similar to the “tramlady” incident, in which both black and white passengers proved capable of shouting down Emma West (who like Liam Stacey is probably looking far harsher sentence than those frequently handed down to those engaged in actual physical violence).
As it happens, I’m not a fan of the various “incitement to hatred” laws. Yet insofar as these laws can in any way be justified, it is in their capacity to prevent speech which has the capacity to provoke serious harm. The incitement laws, remember, came in at a time when the National Front was mushrooming, and there was a genuine sense that extreme sentiments could provoke serious violence.
Liam Stacey, of course, was not sentenced because of any genuine fear that his words could tear a dangerous hole in the social fabric. And that is because these laws are now fulfilling a somewhat different function. Rather than punishing speech which we genuinely expect to cause serious social harm, incitement prosecutions are used to very loudly assert society’s values. And it is upon the bodies of flawed human beings like Liam Stacey that we aggressively etch the words “WE ARE NOT RACIST”.
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