Watching on television as Congolese-born footballer Fabrice Muamba had a heart attack and collapsed while playing in the English Premier League, a drunken university student tweeted his mocking reaction.
The comment was insensitive but not racist. When others on Twitter hit back, though, Liam Stacey launched into a series of abusive and racially charged responses.
The player is recovering but on Tuesday the 21-year-old Mr. Stacey, after a dizzyingly fast 10-day trip through the justice system, was sentenced to nearly two months in jail for his postings.
“In my view there is no alternative to an immediate prison sentence,” said District Judge John Charles, according to British media reports.
The biology student sobbed in court and was hugged by family and friends before being led away to prison.
Although he attempted to delete his posts, several sites mirror what they say were the offending remarks. Among them, one person was urged to commit necrophilia, another to sexually assault a dog and still another to commit incest. One person was libelled as a rapist, two were called “aids ridden” and the string of tweets included a pair of racial epithets.
It’s a case that showcases the tension between a tradition of free speech and a desire to prevent racism. It also exposes the fissures in modern-day Britain, laid bare most dramatically after last summer’s riots, when some welcomed a heavy-handed approach while others say liberty had to be protected from knee-jerk reactions.
It’s also raising questions, again, about racism in sport.
Black football players in Britain have occasionally been pelted with bananas and generations ago fans of the Tottenham Hotspurs adopted the nickname Yids as a way to defuse anti-Semitic abuse. Although the situation has, by all accounts, improved, former national team captain John Terry was accused last year of racially taunting another player. He has pleaded not guilty and is due to stand trial in July.
And it’s a reminder that, in an age of instant communication that leaves an electronic record, alcohol-fuelled statements that could once have passed without penalty in a pub or street may now be entered as evidence.
Police in the United Kingdom have broad powers to pursue people for what they post on-line. Under Section 127 of the Communications Act of 2003, a person convicted of posting material deemed “grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character” can be jailed up to six months.
The wording of the section is vague enough to drive a truck through and has been met with waves of criticism.
“In a lively democracy – which I think the U.K. is – arguments will be exchanged every day that somebody, somewhere will find ‘grossly offensive’,” argues one critic, blogger Andreas Moser. “I am left with two good alternatives: I can pick up the debate and try to get it civilized again, or I can stop listening and walk away.”
But when Mr. Stacey got into his slanging match on Twitter, some other users felt his comments were beyond the pale. Police received numerous complaints, including one from former English player Stan Collymore, who has faced his own racially charged attacks.
A day after the game Mr. Stacey was arrested at his student house. He reportedly admitted having been drinking for hours and was unsure why he posted the original comment that provoked the criticisms and his counter-attacks.
“I'm not racist and some of my friends are from different cultural backgrounds,” he told police.