Jailed for tweeting

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The marginally linguistic topic of freedom of linguistic expression occasionally occupies me here on Language Log, as you probably know. And you may be aware that my instincts tend toward the libertarian end of the spectrum, and the defense of the First Amendment. Possibly you are also aware that there really isn't anything I despise and abhor more than racism. So the recent case of Liam Stacey here in the UK puts my principles in tension. He has been jailed for exercising what you might describe (incorrectly, I think) as his free speech rights on Twitter, having apparently forgotten that the UK does not have any analog of America's First Amendment. I'll review the facts of the case, including the language that he used. But do not read on unless you are prepared to see some seriously offensive linguistic material.

During a recent FA cup quarter-final soccer match between Bolton Wanderers and Tottenham Hotspur, a popular African immigrant member of the Bolton team, Fabrice Muamba, collapsed with a cardiac arrest. All the players, on both teams, were frozen in shock. Muamba was well known to be a very decent human being; it seems that everyone who knew him liked him and respected him. As Muamba was taken to the hospital after intensive cardiac massage on the field by paramedics, the match was abandoned.

Liam Stacey, an undergraduate biology major at the University of Swansea in Wales, was watching at home, drunk out of his mind after watching his national team win the Six Nations rugby football trophy. He grabbed his phone as Muamba fell. His first tweet said, "LOL. Fuck Muamba. He's dead!!!"

Tasteless and hateful, yes. But enough to put him behind bars? I don't think so, not even in the UK. However, it doesn't take too much web research to find out what happened after that (though none of the newspapers would report it). When other Twitter uses criticized his first tweet, he responded, and it was his responses that earned him his jail term. Here are some of his responses to critics (I reproduce them unfiltered and unmasked because I think the shock of seeing them is crucial to the point under discussion):

  • He you are a silly cunt.
  • Your mothers a wog and your dad is a rapist!
  • Bonjour you scruffy northen cunt!
  • owwww go suck a nigger dick you fucking aids ridden cunt
  • go suck muamba’s dead black dick then you aids ridden twat! #muambasdead
  • go rape your dog! #Cunt!
  • I aint your friend you wog cunt ... go pick some cotton!

Your mileage may differ, but looking at this I find myself siding with the judge. This isn't expression of opinion. This is violence, verbally delivered, and is quite deliberately fanning the flames of interracial hatred. I think I would have decided in roughly the same way that District Judge Jon Charles did in the Swansea Magistrates' Court. Partly to reflect the public outrage at such hate speech being published (yes, tweeting is publication) while the whole soccer world was praying for Muamba's life, he accepted the charge of inciting racial hatred, and jailed Stacey for 56 days. On Friday 30 March, Mr Justice Wyn rejected Stacey's appeal. He has been suspended by his university, and dismissed from the Treorchy rugby club where he occasionally played for the second team.

Stacey reportedly hoped for a career in forensic science. With a couple of months of prison on his resumé, he is not very likely to get a job working closely with police or the courts now. He wept in the dock, knowing what he had done to himself. But I'm finding it very hard to have any sympathy at all. Racism is the great evil of the past two centuries, the absolute worst social scourge of modern times, the very first thing I would get rid of if I could be made ruler of the universe for a quarter of an hour. Fueled with drink, Stacey, sided with that terrible evil and lashed out using words in a way that seems more akin to swinging a machete in a pub than to expressing a controversial opinion.

Some commentators in the media, especially in relatively conservative papers and blogs, have in effect defended him. "A lifetime of being an idiot is probably punishment enough," said Tom Chivers, assistant comments editor of The Daily Telegraph. Ed West, also on a Telegraph blog, linked the matter to politics, and talked about "the absurd, comical conclusion of the Left's obsession with 'hate crimes' — sending people to jail for saying nasty things."

Well, I can certainly agree that we need to have a lot of freedom to publish nasty things, or there will not be much left of debate on any really contentious topic like obscenity. I'm not in favor of shutting down everything that anybody thinks is nasty — heck, look at this post, and ask yourself how this issue could ever be scrutinized if nothing nasty could ever be put before the public.

But nobody defends the right to shout "Fire!" in a crowded theater, and I think Stacey's actions fall much more into that category. (Notice I said his actions, not his opinions. This case isn't about holding racist opinions, which of course should be legal, and it isn't about taboo vocabulary either.) Africans sometimes get beaten to death in this country just for having black faces. Racism is as dangerous in this society as highly inflammable wall and seat coverings would be in an auditorium.

Stacey has no excuse (he pleaded guilty). He's going to have to do his time and deal with being an ex-convict for the rest of his life. And it's his own fault. His actions were not just inexcusable in moral terms, but dangerous to the relatively peaceful society in which up to now he has had the privilege to live, and in which he is now a convicted criminal.

Update, 19 April:
Forgive me for not opening this post to totally unmoderated comments (Language Log has no real control over its comment facility). But I am happy to report some of the very intelligent objections and disagreements that I've received via email. One correspondent said this:

Saying that a few racial epithets are "violence, verbally delivered," is denigrating to actual, real violence and its victims. The key difference is that people have the power to ignore words. Especially on Twitter: no one is forced to subscribe to the tweets of a twit.

Your comparison between racial epithets and yelling "fire" in a theatre is not apt. There is no evidence that a few tweets endangered anyone. As I understand UK law, there is no obligation to show such a thing. He wasn't even trying to incite violence. He never said "Let's go beat up some black people." His expression was juvenile, full of non-sequiturs, ad hominem attacks, and insults. But it was no more threatening to society than "Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries" is threatening to hamsters and elderberries. He is being imprisoned for insults.

To be fair, let's take the logic embodied in his prosecution to its logical extreme. If he is guilty of expressing racial hate, why not hate against the other groups he mentioned? Northerners? Dogs? Rapists? It seems odd the say that it is illegal to insult certain groups, but not others, and that the state gets to arbitrarily choose which groups those are.

While I don't personally know the man involved in this case, I'd say offhand that the proximate cause of his behavior of alcohol, rather than racism. I will leave it to others to derive appropriate governmental policy from this observation.

I realize that there is a difference between US and UK culture here. I am biased towards a permissive culture that generally allows speech until it is shown to cause harm. And I think that the effect of needless restrictions on speech do more damage to society than the public expressions of self-evident idiocy. And I think that in this case, the restriction does nothing to reduce racism (which is deeply entrenched), or expression of racism (which will continue on its merry way in other forums), or violence (which does not need barely coherent tweets to justify itself).

Another said this:

People have the right to yell "Fire" in crowded theaters. What they do not have is the right to use free speech as a defense when they are rightfully charged for the ensuing mayhem. We ought not penalize people for the possibility that the things they do will cause harm. What we ought to do is punish them fully for the harm they cause.

This principle is difficult to stay faithful to in practice, which is why governments vary from it all the time. (And there are sometimes good reasons to stray from it, although this isn't one of those cases.) The problem is that we have real problems letting people get away with things that have a reasonable probability of causing harm even when they don't. The flip side of this is that we prosecute people whose contribution to a problem is trivial when the consequences are sufficiently awful. Neither is a good result, but, alas, we are all used to it.

If someone inspired by Mr. Stacey commits some actual racial offense against some actual person I have no problem with long terms in the pokey for both the offender and Mr. Stacey. And if anyone could demonstrate that Mr. Stacey's vile comments actually caused a new racist idiot to spring up, or even convincingly demonstrated that some idiot's vileness was further cemented into his character, well and good — lock Stacey up. That's a consequence of his speech act. But the speech act itself? Without further evidence it seems to me to be nothing. Indeed, as you point out, Mr. Stacey's conviction was based on responses from those who belittled his racist rant. Don't we want to know the relative proportion of defenders and attackers of such vileness? Isn't the real lesson that people felt free to speak out against Mr. Stacey? Shouldn't we take solace in that?

I take radical First-Amendment views of this sort very seriously. These two correspondents may have it right, and I may have it wrong. The second of them wrote back when I told him I thought it was a finely balanced judgment call, and pointed out that even in the US you can be prosecuted for joking "I've got a bomb!" during the airport security procedures:

I agree that it's a judgment call. Where we disagree, I suppose, is in who has the better judgment. The Security Theater example is an excellent one. There are two arguments for hauling off the miscreant. The first is that other who overhear the threat might presume that the prankster is not being taken seriously and might therefore presume that real security threats are not being taken seriously and (here's the critical step) be less likely to use the air system thereafter. The second argument is that we need to make an example of idiots in order to convince the terrorists that actual threats will be taken even more seriously.

Both of these rationales can be stretched to apply to the Stacey case, I suppose. But (and here's that nasty "judgment" again) it's a pretty long stretch.

It is a long stretch. Maybe too long. I'd love to feel that we can be confident enough in the strength of our society that we could allow Liam Stacey (or, for that matter, the Westboro Baptist Church) to yell and publish whatever vile, hostile, offensive, racist, sectarian, sexist, homophobic garbage they want. Perhaps we can, without danger. Perhaps tweeting is never like swinging a machete in a crowded bar. What is definitely clear, though, is that there is a cultural difference: the US inclines toward radical protection of speech, and the UK absolutely does not, and will lock you up or fine you for saying certain things, or for singing certain songs at Scottish soccer matches.

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