Earlier this month, 23-year-old Fabrice Muamba suddenly collapsed while playing professional soccer. He suffered a heart attack, and the game was later replayed without him.
Moments after the collapse, 21-year-old Liam Stacey was sitting at a bar drinking when he heard the news. Intoxicated, he sent an obscene message over Twitter, laughing at the tragedy and claiming Muamba was dead, which was false. As of Tuesday, Muamba was still in the hospital in serious but stable condition.
While Stacey ultimately said he regretted the decision, he was sentenced to up to eight weeks in jail in a Welsh court on a charge of racially aggravated harassment, as he is white and Muamba is black. The comments were certainly abhorrent, but whether they were racist is more questionable. However, the judge in the case was solidly convinced the comments were racist.
Laws in the U.K. and much of Europe criminalize hate speech in an effort to prevent the rhetoric that led to the rise of the Nazis and the Holocaust and to reduce hatred against immigrants, particularly from the Middle East. These laws are reshaping the demographics of the continent similar to the way immigration from Mexico has been affecting the United States.
Here in America, we have the First Amendment, which protects hateful speech. While the laws elsewhere prohibiting such speech have noble intent, their results are counterproductive.
Another incident happened that was similar in the racial aspect but very different in the way the individuals bore the consequences. The website Jezebel reported on Tuesday about criticisms of the movie “The Hunger Games” for casting Amandla Stenberg, a black actress, for the role of Rue. These remarks, also made on Twitter, did not result in anyone being sent to prison. But these individuals’ words drew consequences nonetheless.
Many of the racist tweets were posted alongside the article as screenshots, with users’ real names and usernames intact and not blurred or otherwise obfuscated in any way. The article noted at the end that many of those who had been exposed as racists made their accounts private or even shut them down altogether as a result of their humiliation.
Rather than fill up prisons with those who typed something inappropriate on the Internet, we would all be better off using less harsh but more effective consequences on those who make bad choices when opening their mouths or typing on a computer.
Exposure of bigotry such as the article from Jezebel helps others realize where we are as a society and makes one think about these kinds of issues more. We are all strengthened by input from others, and getting tough love from others who put in the effort of saying why it is wrong is a much better solution than a judge sentencing them to a jail cell. The rest of us can learn a lesson as well, seeing how others think makes us think in turn.
Europe should look at the United States as a model for how freedom subdues bigotry better than imprisonment. While even bigots should have their right to free speech protected, these protections can be productive when they are used to show people why their words are harmful and wrong, far better than any jail cell can.