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Would Jailing Racist Trolls Help Kick Racism Out of Football?

Internet trolls behind the racist abuse and death threats sent to footballer Wilfried Zaha need to know that they could face severe penalties of their own.

The Crystal Palace forward hit the headlines this week following the club’s 2-2 draw against Arsenal during which he won a penalty. Zaha later revealed the disgusting abuse that had been directed at him and his family via social media.

In the words of the Football Association’s general secretary, Alex Horne, no football team should be asked to play in any environment where racial abuse, violence and threatening behaviour is prevalent. Offences of this nature are against the law and should be treated with the severity they deserve. Zaha has so far responded only on social media, stating “For all the people taking it one step further and being racist and wishing death on my family, I wish you and your families the best too. My life is still very good despite your hate.” He also reserves the right to report the matters to the police and I hope he does as, in my view, there may be clear evidence of a racially aggravated public order offence or even the more serious offence of making threats to kill.

Under Section 16 Offences Against the Person Act 1861 “A person who without lawful excuse makes to another a threat, intending that that other would fear it would be carried out, to kill that other or a third person shall be guilty of an offence and liable on conviction on indictment to imprisonment for a term not exceeding ten years”.

Even if the threat is ultimately hollow and the offence is not made out, the Public Order Act may provide a suitable alternative line of enquiry for the police. Under section 4A of the 1986 Act - Intentional harassment, alarm or distress:

  1. A person is guilty of an offence if, with intent to cause a person harassment, alarm or distress, he—
    (a) uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour, or
    (b) displays any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting,

thereby causing that or another person harassment, alarm or distress.

The offence carries a maximum sentence of six months in prison although regularly fails to achieve that level of sentence in the magistrates court, with offenders normally receiving a financial penalty. The sentencing guidelines suggest that a prison sentence is only to be considered if a weapon is brandished or used or threats are made against a vulnerable victim especially if the course of conduct is over a longer period. The guidelines also suggest that there is a greater level of culpability if there is a high degree of planning or if the offender deliberately isolates the victim; and a greater degree of harms if there is actual or potential escalation to violence of if the incident has serious impact on the victim.

Add in the racially aggravated element and the whole emphasis shifts. Sections 29 to 32 of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 create specific racially or religiously aggravated offences, which have higher maximum penalties than the non-aggravated versions of those offences. The individual offence guidelines indicate whether there is a specifically aggravated form of the offence.

An offence is racially or religiously aggravated for the purposes of sections 29-32 of the Act if the offender demonstrates hostility towards the victim based on his or her membership (or presumed membership) of a racial or religious group, or if the offence is racially or religiously motivated. Racially or religiously aggravated disorderly behaviour with intent to cause harassment is triable either way, which means it can be dealt with by a Judge at the Crown Court and carried up to two years imprisonment.

Although I have great respect and sympathy for Mr Zaha in the magnanimous way he has dealt with the abuse so far, I would like to see the matters reported to the police. The only way such vile abuse is going to stop is by people taking a stand so that the perpetrators, who are relatively easy to identify, are brought to the attention of the police and ultimately prosecuted. The more this happens, the more others may think twice before pressing the send button.

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