The Corner

The Decline and Fall of British Freedom

Last week, I wrote about Liam Stacey, a British citizen who was arrested and imprisoned for 56 days for writing obnoxious, racist things on Twitter. I cast the incident as part of a worsening trend, in which the land of John Stuart Mill is being slowly but surely transformed into the land of surveillance, “hate speech” legislation, and mob rule. (For a little background, here is an account of another “hate speech” imprisonment and a rundown of the censorship laws that now obtain in the United Kingdom.)

This morning, ESPN is reporting that the Twitter incident was not an anomaly:

A police investigation has begun after another Premier League footballer was racially abused on Twitter.

James Perch was heavily involved in Newcastle’s win over Liverpool on Sunday

Officers were contacted when Newcastle’s James Perch was targeted on Sunday after a clash with Liverpool goalkeeper Jose Reina ended with the Spaniard receiving a red card during his side’s 2-0 loss.

A Twitter user, believed to be a 17-year-old Liverpool fan who works at a supermarket, tweeted: “I want to punch perch in his n***** head!”

The tweet ended by calling the Newcastle defender a c***.

#more#Other Twitter users immediately rounded on the abuser, telling him police would be informed, and reminding the writer about what happened to student Liam Stacey, who was jailed for abusing the Bolton player Fabrice Muamba.

Stacey, 21, was jailed for 56 days after he admitted inciting racial hatred over remarks about the midfielder, who at the time was critically ill following his collapse during an FA Cup tie against Tottenham.

A call about the abuse Perch received was made to Northumbria Police, but because the complainant was from County Durham, officers from that force will take up the issue.

A Durham Police spokesman said: “Northumbria Police contacted us yesterday afternoon after a member of the public complained about allegedly racist comments posted on Twitter.

“As the complainant lives in County Durham the matter was referred to Durham Constabulary and an appointment has been made for an officer to visit them and take further details.”

It goes without saying both that racism is appalling and deserves our condemnation, and that the government should not be imprisoning people for writing offensive things. But just as a matter of practicality, do the British authorities really intend to police everything written on Twitter? And, if so, will they also monitor every YouTube comment? If the British wish to go down this road, they will inevitably end up with offenders being prosecuted either at random or as a result of public pressure; given the sheer number of offensive comments that punctuate Internet discussion, no state can effectively monitor the Internet and catch all outliers even if it wishes to.

As I wrote in my piece on Thursday, what racists write on various Internet forums is, by definition,

horrible and mean-spirited. But [they] deserve our opprobrium, not jail time. Short-lived will be the society that overturns its foundational liberties for two-bit bigots. As always, free speech must apply as much to people we don’t like — to those who say obnoxious and awful things — as to those we do. Sadly, judging by the “hate speech” laws that are filling Britain’s books, and by the reaction to this case, few on the Sceptred Isle seem to care about such things anymore; nor really to understand that the statements “I deplore the Ku Klux Klan” and “but they have every right to speak” are not mutually exclusive propositions. This is a problem, because at the root of seemingly widespread British pleasure toward Liam Stacey’s incarceration is not a desire for revenge, but a cancerous insecurity — an insecurity that hinges upon the fear that the British are just so easily tempted by authoritarianism and by the words of men who hold the wrong values that the government needs to arrest and silence the outliers.

This discussion is timely. This week, the British government is trying to change the law to enable it to “monitor the calls, emails, texts and website visits of everyone in the UK.” The BBC noted that

Internet firms will be required to give intelligence agency GCHQ access to communications on demand, in real time.

The Home Office says the move is key to tackling crime and terrorism, but civil liberties groups have criticised it.

Tory MP David Davis called it “an unnecessary extension of the ability of the state to snoop on ordinary people”.

Attempts by the last Labour government to take similar steps failed after huge opposition, including from the Tories.

A new law — which may be announced in the forthcoming Queen’s Speech in May — would not allow GCHQ to access the content of emails, calls or messages without a warrant.

But it would enable intelligence officers to identify who an individual or group is in contact with, how often and for how long. They would also be able to see which websites someone had visited.

With speech becoming increasingly criminalized, opponents of such surveillance will have a second front to worry about; for if Liam Stacey and his ilk can be arrested for writing obnoxious words on a public site, warrants to monitor private communications for illegal “hate speech” will presumably not be hard to come by.


The Latest