On Sunday afternoon my Twitter feed suddenly erupted with threats and abusive comments against Gabriel Agbonlahor. His crime, it seems, was to tackle One Direction’s Louis Tomlinson during the Petrov charity football match.
These tweets come less than a month after the Crown Prosecution Service announcement that threats and abusive comments made by football fans on social media would be punished. The CPS press release went to far as to suggest that anyone making such tweets faced prosecution and a football banning order preventing them from attending UK matches and also the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Euros. The CPS press release and comment form Nick Hawkins stressed the seriousness of such tweets, this incited a social media outpouring of complaints from fans that they had been placed under a gagging order to prevent them from talking about players and their team.
Compare this with the media coverage of the Gabby Agbonlahor death threat tweets which were greeted by the media with humor and comments about obsessive teenage girls. One such tweet was quoted in the Daily Mirror “this guy that hurt Louis knee, I shall hurt your face. I better hear that you apologised or I will find you and I will kill you”. While on the face of it this tweet can be seen as an overexcited utterance by a teenage One Direction fan, I question whether it would have been treated with the same humor if it had been a tweet by a male teenage fan of a Premiership club, who was frustrated at the actions of a player, or the referee who made what he considered to be a poor penalty decision.
I do not for one minute suggest that these teenage tweets about Gabby Agbonlahor’s actions should be the subject of prosecution, far from it. However, I do believe it highlights the way football fans are treated in relation to other members of the public. The fact the CPS has produced a policy on prosecuting football related offences and included social media in this is one such example. In the past couple of years there have been prosecutions under the malicious communications legislation for tweets and Facebook comments relating to Olympic athletes, the riots of 2011, the murder of two police officers in Manchester, and other such events, but the CPS has chosen football as the subject to promote its policy. This is despite the fact there have been very few cases of fans threatening others on social media. Fans in general seem to receive more abuse than they give out, but the spin always seems to be towards criminalising and casting fans in a negative light.
I am often asked why I specialise in football supporter law as it doesn’t fit with my other specialisms. The answer is that in many cases I see fans as the underdog, when I explain to people that I represent football fans the usual reply is “oh, what football hooligans?”. My reply to this is usually “No, men, women, teenagers, students, doctors, police officers, architects, chefs, builders and baristas – all of whom are also football fans!”.
So what is the significance of the CPS policy on prosecuting football offences and its accompanying press release?
Above all else it seems to indicate what is common in the courts – that the CPS does not understand the legislation and just assumes that a football banning order will be ordered by the courts in any situation where it is requested by the CPS. The policy states “ anyone receiving a FBO this season will be prevented from travelling to both the World Cup 2014 in Brazil and Euros 2016 in France…” It is the use of the word ‘will’ that offends me as it does not have regard for Section 14E of the Football Spectators Act 1989. This section provides that in exceptional circumstances the court does not have to impose the international travel restriction. While I accept that the use of the words ‘exceptional circumstances‘ means that in most cases the travel restrictions will be imposed, it does not mean in all cases as the CPS implies. For example, if a fan has a strong track record of attending international games along with young or disabled persons who cannot travel on their own, and without any previous disorder, it is likely that they could show exceptional circumstances.
Nick Hawkins’ the CPS lead on football offences’ comments in the press release indicate that abuse of players or fellow supporters via social media will also result in a football banning order. However, offences under the malicious communications legislation are not included in the Football Spectators Act as offences which bring a Football Banning Order into play. And the CPS malicious communications policy states that public order legislation (which does bring a Football banning Order into play) should not be used for threats and abuse made on social media.
Hence it appears that despite the hardline taken by the CPS, a Football Banning order should not be imposed on a person sending abusive tweets or writing abusive status updates on Facebook. Nor should it be a done deal that a fan receiving a Football Banning Order will be banned form traveling during international games and tournaments. That is not to say that fans should not take notice of the policy and press release, as it is highly likely that the CPS will do its utmost to prosecute anything classed as football related. And in my experience the courts have even less understanding of football related offences and Football Banning Orders, hence a fan cannot expect to attend court and not be given a Football Banning Order just because they say it is unfair. However, fans should be aware that a Football Banning Order is not always a done deal and in many cases should be challenged.
And as for Louis Tomlinson…today’s tweets imply that his knee is healing nicely….Phew!