The morning after Fabrice Muamba collapsed on the pitch at White Hart Lane during the FA Cup match between Tottenham Hotspur and Bolton Wanderers, we noted on the subject of one individual that had been arrested with regard to comments made on the social networking website Twitter that, “Should he end up kicked out of university and with a criminal record at a time of record high youth unemployment, it is unlikely that he will get much sympathy from anywhere.” Well, Liam Stacey found out the implications of his behaviour that evening, with a fifty-six day custodial sentence for incitement to racial hatred.

It should go without saying that no-one in their right mind would approve of Staceys behaviour that evening but, with the media being the media, wires are already being crossed with regard to what Stacey is actually finding himself at her majesty’s pleasure for. The inclination of the press to join narratives (and Twitter plus racism plus Fabrice Muamba may well be some sort of tabloid fruit machine jackpot) means that it may be a common assumption that Stacey has been imprisoned for what he say about Muamba, a theory that seems borne out out by the judge’s comments that, “It was racist abuse via a social networking site instigated as a result of a vile and abhorrent comment about a young footballer who was fighting for his life.” But Stacey has actually been imprisoned for his behaviour towards people that complained about his initial outburst. The devil, as so often in legal proceedings, is in the detail.

District Judge John Charles’ summing up of this brief trial should, however, perhaps offer us some concern for the direction that justice in this country is taking. Whilst having sympathy for Stacey is something that very few people are likely to have at present, his comments on the subject may give us cause to furrow our brows. “At that moment, not just the footballer’s family, not just the footballing world but the whole world were literally praying for his life”, the judge stated, perhaps unaware of the fact that it is possible to hope that somebody recovers from a physical trauma without referring back to the almighty, and the suggestion that “the whole world were literally praying for his life” also seems wide of the mark. It shouldn’t be considered a mark of disrespect to wonder whether some people are starting to make this incident out of proportion.

We are left to wonder what good a custodial sentence for Stacey will do, short of that popular but vague catch-all of “sending out a message”. After all, a suspended sentence and/or community service order would still have left him with a criminal record, and it seems almost inconceivable that the university at which he is studying will be taking him back as a full-time student, although a hearing is due to be heard on this particular matter in due course. In other words, Liam Stacey’s life has been drastically set back. Upon his release from prison at a time of record high youth unemployment, he might well find it impossible to find himself a job, and his educational aspirations may well be over for the foreseeable future. Is this punishment enough, or do we need the cherry on the cake of a couple of months in prison as well? District Judge Charles, in saying, “I have no choice but to impose an immediate custodial sentence to reflect the public outrage at what you have done”, certainly seems to think so. The truth might not necessarily be as conveniently black and white as this, though.

None of this is to suggest that Liam Stacey deserves a great deal of sympathy from us. His behaviour that evening was pretty abhorrent, and that he had drunk a considerable amount of alcohol at the time is just about the flimsiest defence imaginable. Ultimately, there is no legal basis to this and the harsh truth of the matter is that he has spent the last two weeks and will spend considerably longer rueing the day that he decided to make his thought on this particular subject as clear as he did. It may benefit the rest of us to pause and consider that everything we say on the internet is said in public, that anyone in the world can see it and that they well interpret it in ways that could cause us considerable damage. The right to freedom of speech comes at a cost of responsibility, and it is to be hoped that if nothing else comes from this court case, then some people might in the future stop and think before firing their rage – whether discriminate or indiscriminate – out into the ether. We all say things that we regret, but Liam Stacey will be regretting his thoughtlessness at eight weeks of her majesty’s pleasure. Whether that is a particularly good use of taxpayers money is a different matter altogether.

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