Free Speech

Can a Tweet Put You in Prison? It Certainly Will in the UK

Tweeting racist or otherwise libelous bile can land you in jail in the UK, but the victim, as ever, is not the target of the tweet but free speech.

When Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman briefly melted down in a post-game interview Sunday, shouting something about his superior skills as a football player and the relative insignificance of a player on the opposing team, the Internet did what the Internet does best: In high dudgeon, it sputtered, typed in all caps, and excreted hundreds of witless tweets. Well, most of it was witless. Some of it, predictably, was racist. A young lad named Travis Ozegovich, representing the latter category, tweeted “Richard Sherman = typical n***r.”

Now, there is likely no person on Earth that I would want to have a drink with less, much less befriend or employ, than a young troglodyte like Travis Ozegovich. And by dribbling out his racist bile on Twitter—and by me writing about it, repeating his name for the spiders and robots of Google—it seems that Travis Ozegovich will have a rather difficult time convincing future friends and employers that he isn’t a racist moron. Mostly because the available evidence suggests that he is.

But imagine if we could levy punishment—fines and jail time, piled on top of the standard obloquy and backlash—on Ozegovich for the crime of being a sad little racist. And imagine if we could deputize bureaucrats and police pencil-pushers to trawl Twitter in search of other sad little racists, filling our already overstuffed prisons with even more racists. In the United States, thankfully, we crowdsource our anti-racism efforts, leaving the public shaming to websites like Deadspin, which flagged Ozegovich’s dead-on George Wallace impression and apparently forced him to shutter his Twitter and Facebook accounts.

But there are plenty of places where people like Ozegovich would be remanded into police custody for their knuckle-dragging comments. Because while an American sports star was being abused on Twitter, sports fans in the United Kingdom were venting their anger at various stars and coaches in various professional soccer leagues—and drawing the attention of prosecutors.

Like the chip shop employee with 23 Twitter followers—all close friends—who vented this measured and enlightened critique of Celtic manager Neil Lennon’s coaching style on the microblogging service. “I seriously do wish that someone would kill that ugly ginger cunt.” It was retweeted an astonishing zero times.

Yes, yes. One shouldn’t be in the business of threatening to kill professional athletes and their coaches, no matter how much their decisions or substandard play ruin your afternoon. And threats of violence, even if hyperbolic and meant in jest, are something rather different than cruelty towards “gingers” (though this is likely also an offense. The flame-haired children of the United Kingdom gathered in London recently to protest wide-spread discrimination against red heads). Had he joked at a pub, and within the earshot of a concerned constable, "I could kill Neil Lennon for that coaching decision," does anyone imagine that the boozy chip merchant would have ended up in the back of a police car? But on Twitter, the man with a half dozen followers and no retweets is presumed to either be a homicidal madman or in possession of the power to suborn murder.

We can allow a little more understanding for the policeman who investigates a call to violence—tone is difficult to capture on Twitter, after all—but the Scottish police waste a good deal of time hauling in those accused of racist, sectarian, and generally offensive online speech. A supporter of Celtic’s bitter rival Glasgow Rangers was sentenced to six months in prison for "sectarian threats" when he employed the word “Taig,” a derogatory term for Catholics, during a podcast.

After broadcaster and former soccer star Stan Collymore accused a Liverpool F.C. player of drawing a penalty by taking a dive, he received a stream of racist abuse on Twitter. The authorities quickly involved themselves, tracking down his tormentors. “Several police forces have been fantastic,” Collymore later tweeted. “Twitter haven't [sic].” Investigating the abuse, Staffordshire Police and Crime Commissioner Matthew Ellis celebrated the future of draconian laws that abridged free—but vile—speech: “The law on matters such as these is still developing and I believe a time will come very shortly when people who act in this disgraceful way will get a nasty shock when they are tracked down. I will certainly be encouraging the police to take this investigation as far as possible.” How far that may be is unclear, though we can only presume that it would involve jail time for those tracked down.

And it’s not just sports fans being arrested for trolling. Two Twitter users who threatened Caroline Criado-Perez, a feminist campaigner who successfully agitated for Jane Austen to replace Charles Darwin on the £10 note, were successfully prosecuted for making crude, violent, and sexist threats. "[Criado-Perez] has suffered life-changing psychological effects from the abuse which she received on Twitter,” said prosecutors. Isabella Sorley, a 23-year-old shut-in, told Criado-Perez on Twitter to "f*** off and die you worthless piece of crap,” advised her to "go kill yourself," and, in response to several rape “jokes” made at Criado-Perez’s expense, said that "rape is the last of your worries.” Sorley and her fellow threatener pleaded guilty.

Neil Phillips, a 44-year-old shopkeeper in Staffordshire, was arrested, fingerprinted, and had his computer seized by police when he made a pair of tasteless jokes about Nelson Mandela (“My PC takes so long to shut down I’ve decided to call it Nelson Mandela”). The joke, such as it, was reprinted in various British newspapers. As far as I can ascertain, no journalists were arrested for printing the offending joke, which could be repeated by readers and ultimately cause the Mandela family distress.

When British army officer Lee Rigby was decapitated on the streets of Woolwich by two Islamist fanatics, the police raided various radical Muslim hideouts—and swooped in on dozens of those who tweeted and posted Islamophobic comments in the days following the murder. A spokesman for the Surrey Police said that his officers “will not tolerate language used in a public place, including on social media websites, which causes harassment, alarm or distress.” One young Facebook user was arrested for sending an “offensive, indecent or menacing message” on the social networking site.

In the United Kingdom, it is now the police’s remit to protect communities and individuals from “alarm,” “distress,” and “offense.” Commenting on the sectarian abuse hurled at Celtic manager Neil Lennon, one campaigner commented, incoherently, that “Free expression is one thing but bigotry drowns meaningful debate,” while warning that “people must realise there can be consequences to bigoted expressions.”

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Of course, there should be consequences for those who clog the Internet with racist dreck. And there are, even when the police aren't involved, as we saw in the case of Richard Sherman. (I’m sure Travis Ozegovich would agree.)

But abridgements of free speech aren’t justifiable, I’m afraid, when we disagree with the views espoused, no matter how repulsive. After all, there will always be a bureaucrat, politician, or judge eager to set the limits on what is unacceptably offensive. If “sectarian” tweets about “taigs” (Catholics) and “huns” (Protestants) can result in prison time, how long until atheists and prolific tweeters like Richard Dawkins and Stephen Fry end up prostrate before a judge, begging to be kept from a holiday in Belmarsh Prison? Indeed, Fry got into a spot of trouble when engaging in a debate about why Islam is subject to more scrutiny than, say, the Church of England. ”Wonder why. Oh, have a look around the world and see them [Muslims] slaughtering each other, let alone others. So charming to women too…”

It would seem that, under the current regime of legally enforced sensitivity, Fry too would be worthy of police investigation. Likewise any Muslim cleric who decreed that Judaism was a satanic religion or any Christian who tweeted that homosexuality is an abomination and offense to God.

There is a presumption that ugly ideas are contagious and if the already overburdened police force could only disinfect the Internet, racism would dissipate. This is arrant nonsense. Does anyone really believe that the United Kingdom will measure a significant decline in racial hatred if those amateur phrenologists and parlor National Socialist skulking around Twitter are tossed into jail for six months, where they will marinate in a prison culture of ... racism and violence?

Or should we learn from Richard Sherman’s ordeal and convert Twitter and Google from a tool of torment into prosecutor, judge, and jury? That way, free speech wins, the cops can focus on real crimes, and the vile racists are punished by posterity. Because the Internet never forgets.