The recent case of 21-year-old Swansea University student, Liam Stacey, jailed for 56 days for posting racist comments on his Twitter account, has highlighted the fact that users of this micro-blogging site can face legal consequences for the content of their posts.
Following the massive heart attack suffered by Fabrice Muamba during a football match last week, and the publicity surrounding that tragic event, Stacey tweeted several offensive comments about the Congolese-born Bolton Wanderers player. He was subsequently charged under the Crime and Disorder Act for making racially aggravated comments.
The Crown Prosecutor for Wales has commented that: “Racist language is inappropriate in any setting and through any media. We hope this case will serve as a warning to anyone who may think that comments made online are somehow beyond the law.” The student may also lose his final year place at University, as he has been suspended and faces a disciplinary hearing into the matter.
Also this week, a 21-year-old law student from Newcastle University, Joshua Cryer, admitted in court that he had used his Twitter to abuse ex-England footballer Stan Collymore. Cryer was charged with sending grossly offensive messages, including racist comments, under section 127 of the Communications Act.
Cryer has been sentenced to a two-year community order and was ordered to pay £150 costs. The head of the Crown Prosecution Service in the north-east, Wendy Williams, has commented: “Ironically, the strongest evidence [in cases such as these] has been directly provided by the defendants themselves. When a person makes such comments digitally, they effectively hand police and prosecutors much of the evidence needed to build a robust case against them.”
Further legal pitfalls facing Tweeters could include copyright infringement and defamation. For example, a person who re-tweets may not realise that an original tweet attracts literary copyright, even if tweeted by a celebrity. Furthermore, there is a fine line between posting gossip and tweeting defaming material, which could ’expose someone to hatred, contempt or ridicule’ for instance. Thus, 140 characters may prove costly to some Twitter users in future.