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Can You Actually Go to Jail for Tweeting #KillAllWhiteMen?

Twenty-eight-year-old Bahar Mustafa could face jail time after allegedly tweeting the hashtag. We asked a lawyer if we're all in trouble.

by Zing Tsjeng
Oct 7 2015, 4:55pm

Photo by Lee Avison via Stocksy

It might be time to scrub your Twitter feed of all "kill all fuckbois" references, because it turns out that what you tweet can come back to haunt you. Bahar Mustafa, a 28-year-old university diversity officer from London, has been summonsed to court to face two charges of malicious communications after allegedly tweeting the hashtag #killallwhitemen.

Mustafa will appear in court on November 5 to face the two charges, the Guardian reports. The first is sending a communication conveying a threatening message between November 10, 2014 and May 31 of this year, and the second consists of sending an offensive, indecent, obscene, or menacing message via a public network between those same dates.

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A Metropolitan Police spokesperson told Broadly that the summons follows a complaint made on May 7. "It was investigated by Lewisham Police. We interviewed, under caution [in May], a [then] 27-year-old woman who has now been summonsed."

If convicted, the maximum sentence that a magistrate could impose for those two offenses is six months in jail. But nobody wants to spend six months in jail, right? We thought we'd ask a lawyer to give us some guidance about this area of the law. Are the police really interested in people tweeting things like #killallwhitemen?

Miranda Ching, a criminal lawyer at Peters & Peters Solicitors in London said, "The police don't have the time to target all of the millions of frustrated, angry, disgusting and lewd comments that flitter about. Under the prosecutor's guidelines there must be very high threshold to pass before it would be in the public interest to intervene."

Bahar Mustafa. Screenshot via YouTube user Goldsmiths Students' Union

Past cases that have been prosecuted under the same law have included the case of Paul Chambers, an airline passenger who tweeted, "Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You've got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!!" after his flight was canceled in South Yorkshire. He was found guilty of "sending a public electronic message that was grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character," though the conviction was quashed a few months later by the High Court.

Chambers may have jokily made a threat, but it was still a threat against a specific location. But if you tweet #killallwhitemen, can you conceivably be accused of literally plotting to kill every white man in the world? It would certainly take a while.

"Strictly speaking, the [police] don't need to satisfy the high burden of credible threat—those in themselves trigger more serious offenses, such as threat to kill—but the credibility is taken into account as to whether or not there was an intent to cause real distress or anxiety," Ching said. "It's very difficult because there is no definition of what is grossly offensive, and how the courts have interpreted it over time depends on the facts of the case."

Proportionality is the right term to use, because the European Convention makes it very clear that everyone is entitled to freedom of speech, but that right is not absolute.

Earlier this year, Mustafa was accused of racism after her Facebook request for white men not to attend a student union meeting for ethnic minority women and non-binary people went viral.

In a video statement later read out online, the Goldsmiths student officer argued that she could not be racist on account of her ethnicity. "I, an ethnic minority woman, cannot be racist or sexist towards white men, because racism and sexism describe structures of privilege based on race and gender. Therefore, women of color and minority genders cannot be racist or sexist, since we do not stand to benefit from such a system."

Mustafa's case has outraged everyone from right-on leftwingers to neo-con Breitbart commenters, who see this as an issue of free speech. When women are harassed every day online, it seems a little disproportionate that one woman may land in jail for allegedly tweeting a hashtag.

"Proportionality is the right term to use, because the European Convention makes it very clear that everyone is entitled to freedom of speech, but that right is not absolute," Ching said.

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Mustafa must now appear in court next month, when she will plead guilty or not guilty to the charges. If she pleads not guilty, the case will go to trial. It follows what Ching described as an "increasing trend" in cases of this kind.

"Back in 2008, there were just over 500 reports of alleged crime with 46 people charged [with communications offenses like Mustafa's]," Ching said, citing a Freedom of Information Act request. "By 2012, this had reached almost 5000 reports, leading to 653 charges. So there is clearly an increasing trend of the police having to deal with such matters."

In short, maybe you should #deletealltweets while you still can.