It's not every day you defend someone who cheered while an African athlete lay motionless on the field and then told other Twitter users to die of AIDS, among other horribly racist things. But here we are. Liam Stacey is a 21-year-old British student, and this week a U.K. court sentenced him to 56 days in jail for a series of tweets that the judge called "vile and abhorrent."
That's just ridiculous.
A public admonishment would be one thing. A fine would probably be taking things a step too far. A weekend in jail would be far too much. But 56 days in jail? Is that a joke?
I'm not a British law expert, so this isn't some commentary on jurisprudence. But this is still stupid. As a matter of principle, we--evolved, non-racist humans who mostly use Twitter for dick jokes, live-tweeting Mad Men, and sharing Buzzfeed articles--shouldn't be punishing the idiots out there who use it for spewing hate speech. Partly because it's a waste of time and resources, but mostly because it's fundamentally wrong.
There are A LOT of idiots who deserve to be punished.
A simple Twitter search around any big event will instantly destroy your faith in humanity at large. It just will. Go search #TrayvonMartin right now and see what you find. Check out the Facebook page for any major website, and bathe in the covert and overt racism that percolates in the comment section. But there's a difference between deserving a swift kick in the teeth and deserving a prison sentence handed down by a court of law.
For his part, Stacey's tweets came when a soccer player named Fabrice Muamba lay motionless after collapsing on the field during an EPL match between Tottenham and Bolton. It was a horrifying scene, and the game was eventually suspended. The only thing more horrifying were Liam Stacey's caustic, wildly offensive tweets, which you can see here, via Deadspin.
Stacey's also 21 years-old, an age when people do and say wildly offensive things, just to see what it feels like. Social media makes this easier than ever for people of any age. Lonely, confused people will sometimes be angry, and sometimes that anger will come out sideways, and often it'll be offensive. Twitter amplifies the message more than a megaphone on a crowded street ever could. For instance, Stacey had been drinking all day when he sent the tweets, but on Twitter you don't see that it's just some drunk college kid yelling to no one in particular; all you see are hateful words, and you might want justice.
But governments should be irrelevant here. It's one thing for FIFA to ban hate speech at soccer games, it's another for a government to go off policing "abhorrent" speech, in general. This is an entire justice system saying that they're watching, and reading, and if you cross an invisible line, you could spend two months in jail.
Just the same: If Iranian protesters get caught tweeting about democracy and women's rights and criticizing their government, that same regime could deem them "abhorrent" and prosecute to the fullest extent. Free speech is important, even if it's not always convenient.
No, nobody's saying the U.S. Justice Department is about to go on a Twitter raid to root out racists. But the United Kingdom is much closer to America than Iran, so it's a little disturbing. Twitter's not going away, and neither are the drunk, confused racists spewing hate speech. You can punish an idiotic, offensive comment with a punch in the face, a cold shoulder, a lost job, whatever. But if we're talking about invisible lines between right and wrong, it's important to clarify the line that's been crossed here.
And that's the most depressing part of all this. If governments get proactive about prosecuting people for voicing offensive ideas, it leaves the rest of us with no choice but to defend the guy tweeting about AIDS and cheering Fabrice Muamba's heart attack. And isn't that abhorrent?