The advancement of social media has revolutionised communication in the 21st century. As we are given the gift of a virtual platform to stand on it’s now easier than ever for us to share our thoughts and opinions with the world. However, with this power comes great responsibility, legal responsibility that is.
In recent months the headlines appeared abundant with racial rows sparked by reckless tweeters. These not-so-cleverly named “Twacists” include 21 year-old biology student Liam Stacey, who was recently sentenced to 56 days in prison for his racist tweets concerning footballer Fabrice Muamba made shortly after he collapsed during a match on March 17th. Stacey did however try to salvage his reputation by using the age old defence of claiming he could not possibly be labelled a racist as he has many friends from ‘different culture backgrounds’. Oddly enough this did little to negate the damage, and as a result of his actions Stacey has put both his place at Swansea University and his future career in jeopardy, all at the expense of a few cheap shots at Muamba.
As a result of his actions, Stacey has put both his place at Swansea University and his future career in jeopardy, all at the expense of a few cheap shots at Muamba.
On the 21st of March 2012 another student, Joshua Cryer who studies law at Newcastle University, was sentenced to 240 hours of community service over the next two years and has to pay £150 in legal fees for his verbal attack on footballer Stan Collymore. However, although Cryer escaped a jail sentence for his offence, unlike Stacey his attacks were premeditated as he harassed Collymore repeatedly and frequently.
Yet what seems to be most shocking of these cases is the severity of the boys’ punishments. Although their actions should not be excused, the prospect of a jail sentence over controversial tweets surely hinders one’s right to free speech.
However, the Stacey and Cryer incidents are not stand alone cases, and it’s not just twitter providing a platform for these harmful views, and it’s also just not professional footballers and celebrities who are victim to “twacism” and cyber bullying. You don’t have to browse many forums or comment sections on websites to find an onslaught of shockingly abusive and offensive language directed at pretty much everyone. However, twitter is unique in the way it facilitates communication between a celebrity and members of the public (i.e. potential stalkers and attackers) making legal repercussions to outrageous comments all the more likely. Clearly, the difference between saying something offensive and writing it online is that there is physical and traceable evidence of the latter. According to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) there have been more than 2,000 prosecutions in the last year under section 127 of the Communications Act. The Communication Act was passed in 2003 and states that it is an offence to send messages which are grossly offensive or sent with the purpose of aggravating another party.
Despite the fact Stacey’s comments were obviously atrocious is it fair that Stacey, who has publically apologised to Muamba and his family and was reported to have spent his entire trial in tears, now has a criminal record all for a few drunkenly tweeted jeers?
It goes without saying that web users should to take responsibility for what they type, as they should with what they say. However, with such easy access to public forums and social media sites the temptation to carelessly vent and rant can become too much and we can easily find ourselves in a sticky situation. This means our generation finds itself in previously uncharted waters with this emergence of new risks and responsibilities that unfortunately comes alongside the great benefits of the internet and social networking sites. A simple slip of the tongue (or keyboard), most likely fuelled by boredom or alcohol, is instantly and irretrievably published for the world, and prospective prosecuting parties, to see.
But before we start criticising the government and throwing around variants of the line ‘Orwell’s 1984 was a warning not a guide’, perhaps it just best to think before you tweet.