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27 March 2012updated 27 Sep 2015 6:00am

Fabrice Muamba, jail and racist tweets

When does being offensive become an offence?

By Steven Baxter

Liam Stacey, who wrote racist tweets following the collapse of Fabrice Muamba, is a vile idiot. But should he have gone to jail for what he wrote?

My first inclination is to think that regardless of the despicable things he said in the wake of the footballer’s near-fatal collapse during a Bolton-Spurs game the other week, this man should not be put in jail for what he has written. To jail people for expressing racist views is to make martyrs of these people, to legitimise their sense of entitlement and victimhood, to reinforce the idea that we’re living in a PC world where free speech has been outlawed in favour of politically correct speech.

I certainly don’t wants to live in a country in which people aren’t allowed to be offensive, appalling and even racists if they want to be. But where does conflict and debate between passionate and partisan football fans – I fear I must at this point introduce the word “banter”, which is more often than not used to excuse despicable behaviour as being somehow a blokey get-out-of-jail-free card — become a crime? When does being offensive become an offence?

There’s a sense in which “banter” of a fairly unpleasant nature is and always has been part of football. Vile chants about Hillsborough and Munich still carry on, gloating about death and misery. Manchester United’s Korean star Park-Ji Sung gets told he eats dogs; Liverpool supporters get told they eat dead rats. The hate levels rise. When players collapse, the cry of “Let him die!” goes out – though maybe not so much after the events at White Hart Lane.

Which isn’t to say football fans are a horrible bunch, because there’s a whole world of funny terrace chants, of genuine sporting rivalry and friendly animosity. Up and down the country every weekend, fans of opposing teams sit and have a drink together and tell each other to “have a good match” when they part to take their seats in opposite ends of the ground.

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But in some cases, the rivalry spills over into violence, threats and crime. Where do you draw the line? Sometimes, the justice system gets involved and has to decide what’s “banter” and what has strayed into something darker. There’s now legislation to clamp down on sectarian chanting and abuse in Scotland, with the introduction of the “Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications Bill“, with a particular focus on football.

This isn’t the first case in recent times of a tweeter landing in trouble for what they have written on the social networking site — Sunderland fan Peter Copeland was recently given a community order after making racist tweets about Demba Ba and the number of black players in the Newcastle United side during some “banter” with a fellow fan.

What, then, was different about Stacey’s tweets? In my opinion there are some differences that take it beyond simple trash-talking. The problem with talking about this subject is that to repeat what Stacey wrote is to repeat some truly awful things — and most deemed by the judge, too awful to repeat.

His original tweet carried an “#haha” hashtag when the player had collapsed. He followed this up with a number of insults aimed at people who’d taken offence to that comment, widely retweeted by those who were shocked.

I suppose one test with these things is whether they would be offences if you walked up to someone in a pub and said them. While the “Fuck Muamba” tweet is disgusting, it’s not targeted hate at one person to hurt them, whereas I think the others are, and have a racial element which only makes it worse. Are they threatening and hurtful words and behaviour? Do they incite racial hatred, more importantly? Stacey admitted the offence with which he was charged.

Much as I don’t want to live in a world in which people’s tweets are censored and scrutinised, we do live in a world in which bright, articulate footballers like Micah Richards feel forced to quit Twitter after being on the receiving end of a slew of racist tweets.

So what is to be done about it? Football has a long way to go before it can say it really has kicked out racism, and there really is a line between what’s acceptable as a slanging match, or abuse, and out-and-out threats and incitement.

Sometimes, that line does get crossed, and Stacey has 56 days of his life to reflect on that.