The sheer madness of imprisoning Liam Stacey for an act of racial twitter trolling

This post was written by Reuben on March 28, 2012
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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Reader Comments


Excellent post. Who needs to actually deal with the systemic problems symptomatic of racism in society (e.g. the fact that over half of black men aged 18-24 are unemployed, the riots and how they were framed in the media, etc.) when we can simply send a message that racism “shouldn’t be allowed to happen”?

Written By Sam on March 28th, 2012 @ 2:42 pm

Is the last sentence a deliberate reference to Kafka’s In the Penal Colony? If so, I salute you.

You will remember of course that it is the officer who, when the visitor does not find in favour of the ruthlessly “literal” judicial system of which he has placed himself/been placed at the heart, ends up setting his cogs with the final “Be Just” judgement for inscription on his own body (and that the machine then fails to bring him the release he sought).

Now wouldn’t that be a delicious irony…. (note to CPS, I am not advocating the stencilling to death of representatives of this repressive state, merely drawing a literary allusion, and anyway Reuben started it so jail him).

More to the point in respect of your piece, I think you (and many others) are attacking the wrong point in the overall judicial system. The problem is not the law, so much as the apparently changing way in which it processed via the CPS’s public interest test. What seems to have been inserted into that test – far from democratic view – is a factor heavily in favour of prosecution, namely when the case makes headlines. That was never the intention of the public interest test, which is there primarily to take a view of whether it is in the overall public interest to prosecute, not of how upset everybody is for a day or so.

This should be the main point of attack on the system, I would suggest, for those freaked out by this latest and other internet-wordage cases, not least as it stands more chance of success. See my place also for more.

Written By Paul on March 28th, 2012 @ 4:16 pm

They came for the racists, but I said nothing, for I was not a racist…


Written By Paul on March 28th, 2012 @ 6:08 pm
Alan Wilkinson

God save us from sanctimonious judges. They’ll be deporting people to the colonies next.

Written By Alan Wilkinson on March 28th, 2012 @ 10:55 pm
Jean Cherry

Excellent article. Why is it that only a judge fails to recognise that twenty one year olds engage ‘mouth’ before brain. A court hearing was enough in itself, a warning, and letter of apology to Muamba would have reinforced the point. Only this week, an English rugby player, having bitten the thumb of an Irish opponent, with intent, was only subject to an internal disciplinary hearing culminating in a four week ban. The law is an ass!

Written By Jean Cherry on March 28th, 2012 @ 11:29 pm

I agree. It has been claimed that asserting society’s values is a legitimate objective of the criminal law, but its application in practice has sometimes been horrifying.You don’t need to go as far back as heresy and witchcraft trials. In the lifetime of many of us,the laws against homosexuality were enthusiastically applied, and sentences of imprisonment for ‘homosexual crimes’ were frequent.

Incidentally, in the nineteenth century there was a judge named Charles who sat in London and whose lack of wisdom is said to have given rise to the expression ‘a proper Charlie’. I wonder if he was an ancestor of the Swansea judge?

Written By Christopher on March 29th, 2012 @ 9:33 am

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