Could the Ryan Babel fine for his Twitter dissent be a landmark legal case?

Opinion by Dan Raywood

As far as footballers go when it comes to free speech, it is fair to say that there have been some 'incidents'.

As far as footballers go when it comes to free speech, it is fair to say that there have been some ‘incidents'.

The introduction of Facebook and Twitter has allowed sportsmen to speak their mind in a way that the professionals of yesteryear would not have been able to do.

Take Darren Bent for instance, this week he signed for Aston Villa for around £20 million without the drama of his move from Spurs to Sunderland in August 2009, which caused him to rant at Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy telling him to ‘stop f****** around'.

In recent weeks a new incident has led to considerations about a possible landmark legal case involving a player and his use of social media. Following Manchester United's 1-0 win over Liverpool, the Anfield striker Ryan Babel questioned some of referee Howard Webb's decisions and re-tweeted a posted picture of the referee in a Manchester United kit.

A bad idea? Well yes, Babel immediately deleted his post and apologised but has since been fined £10,000 by the Football Association (FA) and is now looking at a transfer abroad.

So is this a case of someone being fined for an outburst on a website that is neither club nor FA affiliated and could it lead to further instances of a similar nature? This week I spoke to Internet Security Forum (ISF) principal research analyst Adrian Davis and asked him if he felt if this is a landmark case.

He said: “Well it sets a precedent but interestingly enough he is a member of a profession and if you play under FA rules, you are not allowed to bring the game into disrepute. Admittedly it is not very well exercised, but he did bring the game into disrepute so the FA is well within its right to exercise its code of conduct.

“I am sure if an employee did it or an accountant did it there would be similar punishment, but being a footballer they are higher profile. The other point is do professional bodies have a role to play in this? Like the institute of accountants, does that mean that they need to be more social media aware?”

I asked Steve Durbin, vice president of sales and marketing at the ISF, what the case was, considering Babel was not on ‘working time' when he posted the messages. He said that there is a blurring line between work and social lives with added responsibility.

He said: “With Twitter you are always on, most employers do have clauses in their contracts that state that you cannot do anything even outside of work that would bring the business into disrepute in anyway, so you are still an ambassador and that is the tactic that has been taken now.

“A few years ago he would have probably got away with it as he would have had a joke in the pub with his mates but now it goes global and it has cost him £10,000.”

Davis commented that it is a legal precedent and as most English law is based on precedent, it has to be considered an important case.

So for the prolific football tweeters and for those of us who use platforms for communication that others can view, maybe there should always be time to stop and think before posting.


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