Racist tweets lead to jail

A biology student at Swansea University has been jailed for 56 days after posting racist comments on Twitter about Fabrice Muamba – the football player who is seriously ill after having a heart attack. He has been jailed on the grounds of inciting racial hatred, following a number of complaints from other Twitter users.

I’m not entirely sure what to make of this. On the one hand, I’m very pleased to see racism being taken seriously. On the other hand, I’m wondering why the staff of the Daily Mail aren’t in prison on similar grounds. It’s also a bit unclear to me whether things one says on Twitter, and other such social networking sites, should be treated in this sort of way. On the one hand, using Twitter feels very informal. One can have conversations on Twitter, rant about things that have upset one, have a bit of a moan, and do all the sort of things one might do in a verbal conversation. On the other hand, one’s tweets are broadcast far wider than one’s conversations, and are in the world as public items long after one first writes them, there waiting for other folks to stumble across them in a way that one’s conversations are not. Thus they shouldn’t be treated exactly like casual conversations, but neither should they be treated exactly like pamphlets, newspapers, political manifestos, books, and so on.

I might also note that my opinion on this matter will no doubt be swayed by the content of the tweets, which the judge called ‘vile and abhorrent’. The BBC has had the good sense not to republish them. But I can imagine if they called for violence against blacks, or something along those lines, I might very well feel there’s no ambiguity about what should have been done in this case.

What do you think?

You can read more about the case here.

4 thoughts on “Racist tweets lead to jail

  1. If he has been convicted of “inciting racial hatred”, I think that’s OK.
    Racism is something that we as a society have decided not to accept, even if it only comes from individuals. We find it potentially dangerous and thus don’t deem it worthy to be covered by the principle of “free speech”.

    However, I have a problem with prosecutions for tweets and blogs and other utterances for being “grossly offensive” as Section 127 of the Communication Act 2003 allows: http://andreasmoser.wordpress.com/2012/03/20/communications-act-2005/ “Grossly offensive” is far too vague.

  2. It’s hard to know what “inciting racial hatred” is, but it may have been quite a bit worse than a simple use of some racial slur.

  3. I struggle with this issue quite a bit. The “words can never hurt me” stuff is clearly mistaken – especially concerning attacks on people’s identity. But I can’t shake the idea that the harm produced is very different from physical harm or the harm caused by being deprived of one’s freedom (as jail time does). I suppose I think it’s less significant, generally speaking. I also wince at bit at “inciting” charges – as it seems to be a kind of excuse-making for those who go on to (other) violent behavior.

    Seems like we should be able to find a less blunt an instrument than jail-time for such behavior.

  4. I think this is probably one of those areas where free speech law in the U.S. would probably prevail, and this person wouldn’t get jailed. It depends, of course, on the nature of the tweets. But my understanding is that these sorts of laws are much broader in Europe than would ever pass muster in the U.S.

    One thing I wonder is whether anyone in the UK or Continental Europe hasn’t tried something like the Catharine MacKinnon approach here – has anyone tried to pass legislation allowing people to sue for damages that can be demonstrably shown? That’s one alternative to jail-time.

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