…but tweets will never hurt me

‘See the young man who was abusive about Muamba got a custodial sentence. Let it be a warning to all you immature souls. #thinkbeforeyoutweet.’ So tweeted ex-footballer Gary Lineker, popularising the #thinkbeforeyoutweet hashtag used in reaction to the news that 21-year-old student Liam Stacey was to be imprisoned for 56 days. Stacey had posted abusive comments about Bolton footballer Fabrice Muamba who fell ill during an FA Cup match.

Lineker was far from alone in seeing the imprisonment of Stacey as an important warning for internet ‘trolls’ everywhere. The Apprentice star Lord Alan Sugar responded to the news with the tweet ‘BLOODY GOOD JOB. Be warned idiots!’, and veteran broadcaster James Whale claimed ‘people who abuse Twitter take note’. Others went still further, tweeting that they hope people will ‘rape the fuck out of him’ in prison, with the #DONTDROPTHESOAP hashtag being frequently used. One Twitterer even claimed, ‘I wouldn’t really care if Liam Stacey died. He’s a sick man, from the scum of the earth.’

Sure, even if Stacey had drunk the eight pints he claimed to have done before tweeting ‘LOL. Fuck Muamba he’s dead!!! #Haha’, you would still have to be pretty sick in the head to do so. And his racist responses to some people who criticised him afterwards were obnoxious. Stacey rightly deserved to be challenged and put in his place.

But the censorious Twittersphere wouldn’t stop at that. One person proudly boasted about being ‘one of 100s who reported his racist tweets to the police’, which eventually led to him being incarcerated. Upon being sentenced at Swansea Magistrates Court, district judge John Charles announced, ‘At that moment, not just the footballer’s family, not just the footballing world, but the whole world were literally praying for his life. Your comments aggravated this situation.’ The judge told Stacey he had done ‘untold harm’ to his future.

So you can now be locked up for 56 days simply for saying something that aggravates people? That Liam Stacey had less than 300 followers on Twitter out of a potential 140million means that a very small number of people would have been aggravated by him, and these could simply have chosen to block his comments. Had the comments been ignored, rather than highlighted by offence-seeking campaigners, they would have remained a miniscule drop into the ocean of 340million tweets made each day. Certainly a number of Stacey’s comments were racist, but to claim – as Judge Charles did – that this instigated other nasty tweets against Muamba is highly questionable. People are not automatons, and don’t just read comments and decide to mimic them. If others tweeted nasty comments about Muamba, they are responsible for them, not Stacey. A couple of racist tweets does not a racist pogrom make.

Judge Charles concluded that, ‘I have no choice but to impose an immediate custodial sentence to reflect the public outrage at what you have done’. But he did have a choice. He could have ignored the ‘public outrage’, much of it emanating from snitches on Twitter, and upheld Stacey’s freedom of speech, the foundational freedom upon which all of our democratic freedoms rest upon. He could have recognised that if you lock someone up for saying what are deemed to be the ‘wrong’ things, no matter how vile, then free speech no longer exists in the UK. The state, in the form of court judges, is now seemingly permitted to become the arbiter of the boundaries of what can or cannot be said.

Even mounting a defence of the bedrock liberty of modern society is likely to see you attacked by the Twitterati, however. Broadcaster Piers Morgan, for example, tweeted to over 2million followers: ‘Trying to work out who’s more idiotic - that dumb, racist cry-baby #LiamStacey or those trying to defend him on grounds of “free speech”.’ Morgan continued: ‘Still getting Twitter trolls demanding their “free speech” right to racially abuse black footballers as they lie in comas. Just p*** off… Actually, I’ve got a better idea - keep spewing your racist filth, vile trolls, and let’s get you all arrested and jailed like #LiamStacey.’ (Hilariously, he then responded to his detractors claiming, ‘Come on you vile little trolls - let me have your worst. I can handle it. #SticksAndStones.’)

In a bitter irony, only last week, Tony Wang, the UK general manager of Twitter, declared that Twitter is the ‘the free speech wing of the free speech party’. While Twitter itself may be neutral regarding the content of what is said on its site, it’s evident that many of its users are using it to erode free speech in the UK in the most chilling fashion. Twitter is as likely to be used to snitch on people to the police for making comments they disapprove of, or to campaign for offending people to be fired from their jobs or get kicked out of universities (there is currently a campaign to get Stacey kicked off his course at Swansea University), than it is to be used for members of the ‘free speech party’ to champion their cause. Indeed, it seems that for some, defending free speech on Twitter is tantamount to spewing ‘racist filth’.

Following Stacey’s arrest, censorious Twitter users are bending over backwards to try to out-censor one another. One such user wrote ‘LOL at Liam Stacey getting jailed by the Twitter police for racial comments. Hope all the coloured men rape the fuck out of him.’ He was then promptly reported to the police by another user, Ivor Sawbottom, who told him, ‘@ScoobyDrew93 your tweet is an incitement to violence. I am reporting you to @metpoliceuk.’ Twitter is fast becoming a highly intolerant sphere, with what can and cannot be said without censure shrinking all the time.

It is little surprise that Stacey was imprisoned for making comments about a footballer. At the present moment, there is an unprecedented crackdown on the behaviour and comments of football fans – people seen by the media and politicians to be little more than bigoted lowlifes. But make no mistake, Stacey’s imprisonment for expressing views on Twitter, no matter how vile, could have wide-ranging implications for the ability of all of us to speak freely.

Certainly, we should all think before we tweet (and speak) – to ensure we convey what is on our mind as accurately as possible. But we should not have to factor into this consideration whether or not we will be incarcerated by the state as a result. Stacey’s imprisonment demonstrates that such considerations do now have to be made. This marks a dark day for the most fundamental of our democratic freedoms.