A British student has been jailed as a result of offensive Twitter comments made during an argument about a black football player. Unlike some previous incidents, the case involved longstanding laws that weren’t specifically introduced to cover online activity.
Liam Stacey, a 21 year old student, made the comments about Fabrice Muamba, a Bolton Wanderers player who collapsed during a game with heart problems and was taken to hospital in a critical condition. He has since regained consciousness but is still being held in intensive care.
Stacey first mocked Muamba’s possible death, then responded to critics with a serious of racially-related insults. After complaints by other users to the police he was charged with incitement to racial hatred. He pleaded guilty and was today sentenced to eight weeks’ in prison.
The judge in the case accepted that Stacey had made the comments while drunk and now regretted his actions, but said this was no excuse.
Stacey’s conviction has reawakened the debate about the limits of free speech, particularly among those who post from behind the security of an online account. As with the conviction last summer of two British men who made Facebook posts ruled to be intentionally encouraging others to take part in riots, the case was based on laws that apply in all cases.
However, some Brits have been convicted under a specific law, the Communications Act of 2003, for “sending malicious communications that were grossly offensive.” These include another British student, Joshua Cryer, who was recently convicted and given a community service sentence for posting Twitter messages aimed at Stan Collymore, a retired black football player.
In 2010, Colm Coss was sentenced to 18 weeks under the same law for posting “trolling” messages on Facebook memorial pages for deceased people. He was recently accused of having resumed such behavior but refused to respond to the claims when featured on a documentary hosted by presenter Richard Bacon, himself a victim of online abuse.