Why Labour should support the CPS, not Nick Cohen, on hate speech
This morning Swansea magistrates jailed a 21-year-old student called Liam Stacey for eight weeks for posting racially offensive comments on Twitter about Fabrice Muamba…….. I’ve no doubt that he’s a vile man, who by the sound of it was drunk at the time he posted, but what remains disturbing about the case is that the Crown offered no evidence that Stacey had incited racial violence or any other crime. That his speech was racist was enough to send him down. This verdict, like so many others, shows how little confidence the judiciary has in wider society.
This is poor stuff.
Cohen doesn’t seem to realise that when someone pleads guilty to a charge, the Crown Prosecution Service doesn’t even get the opportunity to offer evidence (except in the case of a Newton hearing). Nor does he seem to have noticed that the Stacey case was head by a District Judge, not by magistrates.
The main failure, though, is Cohen’s inability to distinguish between the bringing of the charge and the hearing of the charge.
The judiciary is bound to hear whatever case is brought before it, and while the sentence was certainly on the stiff side, it certainly wasn’t outside sentencing parameters.
But, as I set out here, the main issue with this case was not how it was heard, but why the CPS brought it. In particular, I questioned why the public interest test now seemed to include consideration of the media profile of the case. rather than on the actual content of the offence.
As it happens, the CPS appear to asking the same question of itself. On Wednesday, the CPS’s issued what looks like a carefully considered press release about the views of its lead sports prosecutor, who appears to be making a clear reference to the Stacey case:
Harassment through social media is covered by existing legislation, such as the Misuse of Communications Act, and we have already seen successful prosecutions in this area. Where the abuse is racist, we can bring that to the attention of the court as an aggravating feature.
This is an area where I would suggest education, both of what not to do and of how easy it is to detect and prosecute these offences, might prevent the criminalisation of otherwise decent people, but I should stress I would never condone the misuse of social media to commit what would be a hate crime if said face to face.
He goes on to say that such matters might be better dealt with by the “sports authorities”, though here he is referring more to racist chanting at game, for example. Even so, the general tenor of the press release suggests that the CPS is open to hate speech, whether in person or through social media, being tackled by civil society rather than through the courts.
This appears to be a step in the right direction, and it fits neatly with one of the “factors tending against prosecution” set out in the CPS’s Public Interest Test Code, in cases where:
The seriousness and the consequences of the offending can be appropriately dealt with by an out-of-court disposal which the suspect accepts and with which he or she complies.
More importantly, it fits with the overriding principle, set out by the Attorney General in 1951 and highlighted in the Code , that:
It has never been the rule in this country – I hope it never will be – that suspected criminal offences must automatically be the subject of prosecution.
The left, and Labour in particular, should show some maturity by welcoming this intervention from the CPS, rather than simply indulging in Cohen-style “The law is an ass” rants. That won’t get us very far, whereas actually taking time to understand the legal process, the best point to apply pressure to it, might.
Labour has a poor track record and reputation on civil liberties and free speech, precisely because it failed during its last term of office to look at what the consequences of its legislation might be for the legal process as a whole. This is one way to display a new maturity when it comes to law and order.