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Dec 25 2013

Not one month, not four, but eight

Update: see comments, especially Tony Sidaway’s @ 10, for context that makes sense of this.

An item from the Independent more than two years ago. It’s more than a little unnverving.

A man who used a social networking website to post sectarian comments about Catholics and Celtic supporters has been jailed for eight months.

What?

Stephen Birrell, 28, from Glasgow, was also handed a five-year football banning order at Glasgow Sheriff Court for writing the comments on a Facebook page titled Neil Lennon Should Be Banned.

He admitted writing the religiously and racially motivated comments between February 28 and March 8 this year.

Sentencing him, Sheriff Bill Totten said the courts had to send “a clear message to deter others who might be tempted to behave in this way”.

One of the comments, posted a day before a Celtic v Rangers game on March 2 this year, read: “Hope they all die. Simple. Catholic scumbags ha ha.”

Two days after the match, he wrote: “Proud to hate Fenian tattie farmers.”

Good god.

Ok I know – because I was schooled about it here by commenters in the past – that Glasgow has a big problem with sectarian hatred and violence that plays out as football rivalry. But…eight months in jail for that?

The sheriff told Birrell that he had escaped a longer sentence because his comments hadn’t made specific threats against individuals.

But he said he wanted to “send a clear message that the right-thinking people of Glasgow and Scotland will not allow any behaviour of this nature, or allow any place in our society for hate crimes”.

He said: “The use of modern communications to spread or support abuse or target groups of people because of their ethnic or racial background has no place in our modern society and has no place in genuine support for any football club.”

Eight months.

15 comments

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  1. 1
    khms

    Hmm, OK. Two insults. Zero threats or incitements (I can’t see counting the dig at Lennon, as I’d expect there to be pretty much zero chance of such a FB page actually leading to a ban). General unpleasantness.

    Seems like it might justify a fine and/or possibly some hours community work, and/or an enforced public apology, and/or banning from the actual plays for some time. Possibly even some enforced anger management course.

    Calling this “hate crimes” insults victims of actual hate crimes. Unless, of course, there’s something big we’re not seeing.

    or, as in this case, online threatening communications,

    Nope. Not seeing the threat. “I hope you’ll die” is all manners of unpleasant, all right, but what it’s not is a threat.

  2. 2
    RJW

    “right-thinking people” is a rather sinister comment.

  3. 3
    rnilsson

    I drove past Glasgow once over 30 years ago. That might have at the time when this Learned Sheriff was still at school trying to learn how to think right. (Think he ever did?) Glad I never stopped. l Left Right Away.

    I also do not care much for haggis, black pudding or football. I hear the weather is nice sometimes.

  4. 4
    Ophelia Benson

    Pretty much what I was thinking. Maybe a short course on why it’s not a good idea to stir up sectarian hatreds, maybe some community service, but that’s it.

    Eight months is truly startling.

  5. 5
    Pen

    I imagine whether it can be perceived as a mere insult or a threat depends on the local context. Rather like the situation some months ago where that guy called an ex-Muslim woman a bunch of things that weren’t intended as compliments but could only be taken as threatening in a context where Muslims are expected to behave in a threatening way towards apostates. I don’t know anything about the context of this situation. I agree that eight months seems a lot. Most similar cases I’ve known of involved a fine or a warning.

  6. 6
    Tony Sidaway

    To me, the messages do read like incitement to hatred. This kind of hateful, dehumanizing comment undoubtedly contributed to the very violent clashes between rival fans before, during, and after the match. In sentencing, the Sheriff also referred to the fact that these incidents came days after Birrell was released early from a twelve month prison sentence. It’s dangerous, in my opinion, to dismiss the great harm that is done by such hateful comments.

  7. 7
    Ophelia Benson

    I don’t think I did dismiss anything; that’s why I said I know there’s a big problem with sectarian hatred and violence that plays out as football rivalry in Glasgow. But incitement to hatred has degrees. and is itself not the same as incitement to violence. I think it risks being part of that process, but it’s still not incitement to violence itself. But the remarks quoted were hardly the starkest examples of incitement to hatred I’ve ever seen.

    I’m not really likely to dismiss the harm that is done by comments that incite hatred, you know; I’m the daily target of them myself. But that doesn’t mean I think people should get eight months in the slammer for a couple of comments on Facebook. Unless there’s a lot more to the story than was reported…the sentence seems very extreme.

  8. 8
    Lofty

    Birrell was probably released with conditions on his good behaviour, which he has breached. The eight months I suspect are mainly a revocation of his early release.

  9. 9
    Tony Sidaway

    There’s no public record of an appeal against the sentence, that I’m aware of. There is enough there, though, for me to think the sentence was in all likelihood appropriate. A man on parole, as Birrell was at the time of the offence, is always just one step from a return to prison. Birrell would probably be eligible for parole yet again after serving four months of the eight-month sentence.

    As an incitement, words like ‘I hope they all die” are on the extreme side, in my opinion. They create an atmosphere in which acts of severe and unprovoked violence are countenanced. It would be very difficult to argue that this was not the deliberate intent, given the circumstances.

  10. 10
    Tony Sidaway

    Here’s a story that provides the context I felt was missing from the stories about the sentencing. Birrell had a history of extremely violent behaviour going back a decade. His 12-month sentence, partially served and immediately preceding his Facebook posts, was for a firearms offence.

    http://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/news/scottish-news/jailed-bigot-who-abused-catholics-1084518

  11. 11
    Ophelia Benson

    Ah – that makes it a lot more understandable. Thanks, Tony.

  12. 12
    dgrasett

    What bugs me about the decision is that it mentions racial or ethnic background – but not a word about gender or sexual orientation. Ah. Right. It’s Glasgow.

  13. 13
    Tony Sidaway

    Well this case was specifically about attacks based on ethnicity and religion, but Scottish law does parallel English law here. As the LGBT organization, Stonewall, says: “The Offences (Aggravation by Prejudice) (Scotland) Act 2010 put hate-motivated offences against LGBT people, as well as disabled people, on the same footing as incidents aggravated by racial or religious intolerance (laws for which already existed).”

  14. 14
    Shatterface

    As noted above, a lot more to this particular case than abuse on Facebook.

    Were it just about the abuse banning him from Facebook would probably suffice (if that were practical). It’s a breach of the terms and conditions. If he attempted to open a new account that could class as fraud.

  15. 15
    Tony Sidaway

    Looking at my @10 again, yes of course I know how to spell “preceding”, damn it. I’d have exercised more care if I’d known Ophelia would draw attention to it like that. <very big grin>

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