Liam Stacey, the Swansea University student who received 56 days jailtime for drunkenly tweeting about footballer Fabrice Muamba’s collapse and near death experience, lost his appeal against his sentence. While defending counsel argued that his new pariah status and nationwide notoriety served as punishment the judge disagreed and dismissed the appeal:
Mr Justice Wyn Williams said: “You received responses which were extremely critical but you did not desist.
“Instead you posted eight messages which were extremely abusive and insulting.
“By pleading guilty you admitted a racist intent to your comments.”
While most mainstream media seem delighted that Stacey has received a custodial sentence and call it a victory against racism on the internet other sections of the press are concerned at the finding that a racially aggravated public order offense had been committed in this case.
Victoria Coren, writing in the Observer, also points out the implications both of the custodial sentence and the self-congratulatory moralizing of the mainstream media gloating over its imposition.
What terrifies me is that people are nodding happily all over the country, pleased to see a clampdown on internet trolling at last, as if the exact content of the tweets doesn’t matter. It matters enormously. If we’re going to send someone to prison for saying something, we damn well ought to know what it is he said. Anyone who’s pleased to see a person jailed for a piece of writing, without bothering to seek out the precise words that were deemed illegal, should be ashamed of themselves.
She also notes that the trial was conducted by a judge and not a jury, and while this is increasingly common such an important pioneer case should have a jury trial, especially if the problem of internet trolls is to be dealt with by imposing custodial sentences on them. Justice Williams admitted in his denial of appeal that there was no precedent for the case.
Laws are struggling to catch up with the rapid advancement of the internet and social media and at some point something had to be done to stop social media becoming a cesspool where all equality reforms of the last 100 years were effectively overturned. However the internet is also essentially self-policing and saves everything one has ever said, the effects of being an idiot online will soon haunt people’s careers for the rest of their lives. That seems a more effective and less socially dangerous punishment than imposing custodial sentences for internet trolls.
While arguments about how to deal with internet trolling will continue, students and faculty should start to become hyper-aware of how they use social media, and careful of what they say. Social media comments are public domain and a bad joke or rant can have career ending consequences.