So, today I read on the Guardian’s website a very interesting comment piece on Liam Stacey. Stacey was handed a custodial sentence at Swansea magistrate’s court for racists tweets he made in the aftermath of footballer Fabrice Muamba’s collapse during a football game, a collapse that was as a result of a life threatening medical condition.
Stacey made one tweet directly related to Muamba and several other racist tweets in response to those who chose to challenge his views. For this he was given 56 days in prison, quite a stiff sentence for a person who had never before been in trouble with the law. In the aftermath the public and the media were praising the judiciary for their tough action in relation to some pretty offensive behavior. However, offensive behavior isn’t necessarily a crime in its own right.
There was a lot of confusion around what Stacey was actually convicted of. As can be seen from the Guardian piece, different media outlets said different things. After reading the Guardian Article I thought that I would check again the Judgment refusing the appeal against sentence. The Judgment stated that Stacey had pleaded guilty to an offence under s.31(1)(b) of the Public Order Act 1986. This was, as far as I could see, not reported in any media outlet. So, I decided to go and look at what the offence actually said. However, it turns out that s.31 of the Public Order Act 1986 was repealed in its entirety in 2000 (repealed by paragraph 1 of Schedule 3 to the Football (Disorder) Act 2000). What was even more interesting is that when I looked back at the various versions of the section that had existed since their introduction in the Public Order Act 1986 I could find no trace of the section ever having created an offence. The section was making provision for other offences that were committed in connection with football. So, even the Crown Court’s official judgment is incorrect. The question remains what did Stacey actually plead guilty to?
It might seem irrelevant, but the Guardian comment make some very good points in relation to this case (and the law more generally). Should the media be supporting a sentence without actually knowing what offence was committed? Should the media be providing such support without informing the public as to what was actually tweeted by Stacey? I would suggest that both of these questions should be answered in the negative.
The tweets quoted within the Crown Court’s judgment are offensive in the extreme. They use extremely racist language and make other offensive comments in relation to those to whom Stacey responded. The tweet that Stacey made directly about Muamba (as quoted by the Crown Court in their judgment) is not actually racists, although it is offensive. The Crown Court in their judgment state that many of the messages criticising Stacey used “abusive language” (paragraph 8). One media organisation pointed to an offence under s.4A of the Public Order Act 1986, although some have questioned whether such a section could even have applied to the tweets Stacey made. I will not comment on that.
What does need to be clarified in my view is exactly what offence did Liam Stacey plead guilty to. If he in fact plead guilty, as the Crown Court states, to an offence under s.31(1)(b) of the Public Order Act 1986 then he hasn’t actually pleaded guilty to any offence and should therefore not be in custody (although I would be rather shocked to disocver that the Magistrates, the CPS, the defence solicitor, the barristers and the Crown Court all missed this, so I am sceptical as to whether this is actually the case).
I am not in any way condoning what Stacey wrote. As I have already pointed out his tweets as quoted by the Crown Court were offensive in the extreme. I write this to demonstrate the continued problems with the media’s reporting of the criminal law. It is, in my view, highly irresponsible of the media to report a person’s conviction (whether that conviction was byway of a guilty plea or by being found guilty by the court) without first being clear what the conviction was for. That information is essential in order to ensure the public are adequately informed.
So, what offence did Liam Stacey plead guilty to?