Let me ask you a question. Where do you draw the line on freedom of speech? Some say the line ends at incitement to violence, or shouting “fire” in a crowded theater. Others might say the line should be drawn at someone’s religious sensibilities.
How about ironically tweeting the hashtag “#KillAllWhiteMen”?
“Men Not Welcome”
Bahar Mustafa works (possibly “worked” by the time you read this) as a Welfare and Diversity Officer at Goldsmiths, University of London’s Student Union. In April 2015, she posted a Facebook update advertising a social event at the university exclusively for women from a BME (black and minority ethnic) background.
The post concluded with a paragraph emphasizing the event was exclusively for ethnic minority women, saying “… if you’ve been invited and you’re a man and/or white PLEASE DON’T COME”.
An unlikely outrage followed, with coverage of the post hitting Reddit’s frontpage, and petitions made and signed calling for Mustafa’s sacking. It was the kind of vitriol usually reserved for celebrities and politicians. To see it directed at a low-level student union employee was incredibly strange.
But rather than gracefully back down, and apologize for the divisive wording of the post, Mustafa doubled down, insisting that she couldn’t be racist towards white men.
“I, an ethnic minority woman, cannot be racist or sexist toward white men, because racism and sexism describe structures of privilege based on race and gender and therefore women of color and minority genders cannot be racist or sexist since we do not stand to benefit from such a system.”
The Internet was furious. Once again, she found herself as Reddit’s bête du jour, and again she found herself under an immense amount of scrutiny. Her Twitter feed, in particular, was dug through. A number of Ill-advised tweets were highlighted, including one calling a fellow University of London student “white trash”, and one ironically using the hashtag “#KillAllWhiteMen”.
It was the latter tweet that was reported to the police, who are now investigating it. A Scotland Yard spokesperson said “Police received a complaint on May 7 about a racially motivated malicious communication that had been made on a social media account. There have been no arrests and enquiries are continuing.”
London’s finest are investigating a hashtag. A hashtag.
Any fair-minded person probably realizes that Mustafa doesn’t want to actually kill all white men. She was being ironic. Her tongue was quite firmly lodged in her cheek when she wrote it, and as Max Benwell writing in the Independent saliently put it, it’s not as though there’s a history of women committing acts of genocide against white men. As a threat, it’s one completely without any credibility.
So why then is she being investigated? Well, as it turns out, the UK has a long and sordid history of investigating and arresting people for the crime of making crap, ham-fisted jokes on Twitter. People have even gone to jail for it.
“LOL. F*** Muamba he’s dead”
It was a shocking moment in British soccer. Bolton Wanderers midfielder Fabrice Muamba had collapsed on the pitch, after suffering a massive cardiac arrest. It later turned out his heart had stopped for a total of 78 minutes. The match – an inconclusive 1-1 draw against Tottenham Hotspurs – was abandoned, as was the Wanderer’s next match due to take place against Aston Villa.
This being British Premiership soccer, the shocking scenes were broadcast live to millions, with millions more watching online.
Watching at home was Welsh student Liam Stacey. As is the British tradition, Stacey was watching the game whilst drinking – heavily. In his blackout drunk state, Stacey posted a number of pretty off-color tweets.
The tweets caused outrage – the kind of outrage that the British tabloid press loves to exploit. The kind of outrage that sells papers, and causes people to post angry tweets in ALL CAPS without stopping to use the spellchecker.
Stacey was arrested, charged, and sentenced to 56 days in jail. He was also banned from setting foot on the campus of Swansea University, where he was due to sit the final exams for his degree in Biology.
So, what did Liam Stacey post? I’m going to copy his tweets below, with profanities stared out. I warn you: they’re particularly offensive. But are they so offensive they justify a 56 day prison sentence? I’ll let you be the judge. The first was:
LOL. F*** Muamba he’s dead !!! #Haha
This unleashed a flood of outraged tweets, to which he responded:
@porcavacca owww go suck a n****r d**k you f*****g aids ridden c**t
@SamParishPR go suck muamba’s dead black d**k then you aids ridden t**t! #muambasdead
Stupid? Yes. Offensive? Massively so. It reads like someone projectile vomited all the swear words they know, trying to be offensive for the sake of offensive. The type of tantrum you’d expect a three year old to throw after listening to George Carlin’s “seven dirty words”. But hardly incitement.
Stacey eventually sobered up and deleted the Tweets, but they were still retweeted, screenshotted and shared, and published on the pages of the right-wing British tabloid press. The next day, a hungover Stacey was charged.
It’s been alleged that the decision to prosecute him was a result of mindless, tabloid fury. Many on the left, including the Catholic Herald, described his disproportionate punishment as “inhumane”. Even Thomas Hammarberg, the European Commissioner for human rights, condemned his sentence, calling it ‘excessive’.
It wouldn’t be the first and only time someone would be made an example of for Twitter-based stupidity.
“Equal Under The Law?”
But that’s not to excuse them. The tweets they posted from their personal accounts were, naturally, highly offensive. But were they any more vulgar, any more threatening than ones posted by professional rent-a-troll Katie Hopkins?
Hopkins, a former reality TV contestant, once described Pauline Cafferkey – a Scottish nurse who returned from Sierra Leone infected with the ebola virus – as an “ebola bomb” and a “sweaty Glaswegian”.
Little sweaty jocks, sending us Ebola bombs in the form of sweaty Glaswegians just isn't cricket. Scottish NHS sucks. http://t.co/EZpO0UTYHx
— Katie Hopkins (@KTHopkins) December 30, 2014
She’s a columnist for the most widely read newspaper in the UK, who once said this of writer Laurie Penny:
— Katie Hopkins (@KTHopkins) May 9, 2015
Hopkins, who has been photographed with David Cameron and has 500,000 Twitter followers, once implied that all men of Pakistani origin were sexual predators, whilst embroiled in a spat with Labour MP Simon Danczuk.
— Katie Hopkins (@KTHopkins) March 23, 2015
Admittedly, Hopkins has previously been reported to the police for things she’s posted on Twitter, although she has never been charged or convicted. But why? Hopkins’s posts were just as offensive, and were sent to a much larger audience, who then echoed and amplified the original message, adding their own bile in the process.
With that in mind, you could be forgiven for questioning whether the law is being fairly applied.
Speech Worth Defending?
The Guardian journalist Polly Toynbee, in an interview with comedian Stewart Lee, once said that the problem with arguing against censorship is that you inevitably end up defending the lowest forms of speech. She was right.
In this case, we’re talking about Liam Stacey’s drunken ranting, and Bahar Mustafa, who could quite easily be an absurdist Harry Enfield parody of a Tumblr-user.
Before I continue, allow me to be abundantly clear: I think Liam Stacey and Bahar Mustafa are both colossal idiots.
But the thing is, being an idiot shouldn’t be illegal. Neither should it be illegal to be a grossly offensive idiot. Offense is a really strange thing. It’s something that’s ultimately quite subjective to the person being offended. It changes from person to person. It’s highly personal, and has everything to do with you, and nothing to do with the speech itself.
Had Stacey posted his tweets in the United States, he would have been protected by the First Amendment, as would have Mustafa. And as they should be. As a society, we shouldn’t be in the habit of censoring ideas and viewpoints we dislike, no matter how abhorrent and crass they are.
But that’s not the society we live in.
The number of prosecutions of social media related offenses in the UK has surged. Last year, 1,209 people were found guilty of offenses under Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 compared to 143 in 2004.
The communications act makes it a criminal offense to send “grossly offensive, indecent, obscene or false” electronic messages.
Of those convicted, an astonishing 155 were jailed.
Instead of using the full weight of the legal system, should we instead teach empathy and kindness, and not give histrionic Twitter trolls the oxygen of publicity and attention? When did “don’t feed the trolls” lose its relevance? Did anyone really benefit when Liam Stacey was locked up, castigated in the national media, and banned from his university?
But if we are to prosecute people for what they post on Twitter, shouldn’t we ensure that the law is enforced fairly, with not just the poorest, most vulnerable, the most stupid, the youngest, the most impressionable, and the most disenfranchised being prosecuted?
You probably know what I think. But what about you? Let me know in the comments section below, and we’ll chat.