One of the things that any reasonably consistent defender of freedom realises is that freedom means the freedom to do or say stupid, offensive or silly things. (A key proviso, of course, being the freedom to do that so long as you are not imposing your views on others, such as by entering private property and spraying graffiti on the walls, or posting offensive comments on a privately run blog such as this in violation of the blog-owner’s house rules). The recent case of Liam Stacey, a young man jailed for up to 56 days for making offensive comments about the Bolton footballer, Fabrice Muamba, is a particularly bad case.
Mr Muamba is a black footballer who, over a week ago, suffered a heart attack during a football match. He had to be rushed to hospital and is in a critical condition, but it is hoped he will recover. His case has touched the hearts of even the most partisan supporters of the game; people from across the sport, not just in this country, have posted messages of support. Some might sneer that this is typical sentimental guff, but I disagree and it seems genuinely meant and rather a good reflection on a game that often gets its share of abuse.
Now this young student who used Twitter to make crass remarks is obviously an idiot. But it seems to me to be utterly nonsensical to suggest that he should be punished for it by the law. (We don’t have big enough jails to hold all the bigots in this country, let alone anywhere else). He has not, as far as I can tell, incited violence against Mr Muamba or his family and friends. If he had done that, then there might be more of a case.
And where exactly are we going to draw the line? Those internet users who post messages hoping for the death of Tony Blair, Margaret Thatcher or other political figures – are they going to be prosecuted? (I can think of a few people who might be in quite serious trouble on that score). Should the odious Baroness Tonge, whom I denounced for her anti-semitic remarks the other day, be slung in jail? (No). Should those who preach that non-believers in some god or other will burn in hell be put away? Should people who send jokes to friends and inadvertently offend someone be sent to jail? (I offended someone once many years ago this way and got carpeted by my then boss, to my shame). What about stand-up comedians like Frankie Boyle or Jimmy Carr who say nasty things, such as about the Queen, Scotsmen or children with Down’s Syndrome? I personally think these “jokes” are bloody awful but I certainly don’t think people should be sent to the slammer. Instead, we just make sure we don’t pay to watch these characters again.
Of course, in making the case for freedom of speech for yobs, idiots and bigots, it is important to be crystal clear that tolerance for such behaviour is not the same as approval of it. We tolerate that which we do not ourselves approve. There is no doubt that this rather ignorant and unpleasant young man has learned a painful lesson, but it would have been far better had this student learned the perils of making unpleasant comments not by going to jail – places which should be occupied by genuine criminals such as robbers and rapists – but by incurring the ridicule and contempt of those who rightly regard racism and bigotry with scorn.
Defending liberty, if it means anything, means defending the freedoms of those you might personally regard as repulsive. Being a libertarian sometimes demands that we take such a stand, however uncomfortable.