British Freedom of Speech Endangered

In Britain, the trend toward the curbing of free expression picked up speed on Monday, when British student Liam Stacey was sentenced to 56 days in prison for posting racist comments on Twitter. When Premier League footballer Fabrice Muamba had a heart attack during a soccer game and was rushed to hospital, a drunk Stacey took to the microblogging site and spewed a series of racially abhorrent tweets into the ether. Other Twitter users — including sports pundit and former top-flight footballer Stan Collymore — quickly noticed his words and reported Stacey to the police, who arrested him and charged him with incitement to racial hatred a few days later.

When Muamba collapsed, said the judge at Stacey’s trial, “not just the footballer’s family, not just the footballing world but the whole world were literally praying for his life. Your comments aggravated this situation.” In fact, it is hard to see how Stacey’s words aggravated anything much at all. What he wrote, utterly appalling and unprintable as it was, had bearing neither on the efficacy of Muamba’s life-saving treatment nor on the likelihood of his survival. It prevented nobody from praying for his life or exercising any of their own rights. And it encouraged nobody to do anything illegal. Sure, what Stacey wrote may have — should have — upset many people. But in a free country, that cannot be a crime.

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