Social media users who share or comment on racist or anti-gay postings will face jail under rules proposed yesterday.
Advice for judges and magistrates recommends harsh punishments for those found guilty of stirring up hatred against racial, religious or sexual minority groups.
Among those jailed should be people who post comments or share online hate speech because they have been reckless as to whether they stir up hatred, say the proposals from the Sentencing Council.
Social media users in the UK who share or comment on racist or anti-gay postings will face jail under rules proposed yesterday
Those found guilty of hate trolling by commenting or sharing social media should typically receive a sentence of six months in jail.
Anyone who is convicted of orginating hate speech that threatens anyone’s life or which is widely distributed should expect three years.
Even someone whose words or material were judged as hateful, but were not considered to have threatened life or reached a big audience, is likely to be punished with a year in jail.
But critics say the proposals will mean young people who heedlessly throw insults against racial, religious or sexual groups on the internet are at risk of prison sentences.
The recommendations, which will be subject to a three-month consultation, come at a time of deepening sensitivity to racism and abuse about sexuality online.
On top of long-standing concerns about material posted by extremists, accusations have been levelled against those in mainstream politics and other well-known individuals.
Labour Party figures have been accused of anti-Semitism, while veteran feminist Germaine Greer and gay rights and free speech campaigner Peter Tatchell are among those who have been labelled as hate-peddlers for questioning the claims of the transgender lobby.
Stirring up hatred is a crime under the 1986 Public Order Act.
The council’s proposals say the most serious hate offences include speeches given by public figures with the aim of stirring up hatred, online content inciting violence towards racial or religious groups, and websites that publish abusive and insulting material to a worldwide audience over a long period.
Aggravating factors include activity ‘in a particularly sensitive social climate’ or delivered to an impressionable audience.
Using multiple social media platforms also makes an offence more grave.
The firm line taken by the Sentencing Council on hate speech posted online contrasts with its leniency to other groups of offenders.
It ruled two years ago that young thugs – including those who carry knives – may be spared jail if they come from deprived or criminal family backgrounds.
The guidelines gave a number of reasons why courts should not impose custodial sentences to a teenager guilty of threatening someone with a knife, including an ‘unstable upbringing’ that may have involved numerous care placements, exposure to drug and alcohol abuse, victim of neglect and/or abuse, and ‘exposure to familial criminal behaviour’.
Also under 2016 guidelines, muggers may escape prison if the robbery is found to have done no harm and was carried out with only ‘minimal force’.
The council also recommends shorter sentences for criminals who admit their guilt in court.
Those who plead guilty at their first appearance may have their custodial term cut by a third.
Professor Anthony Glees, director of the Centre for Security and Intelligence Studies, described the guidelines as bizarre, saying they were ‘not strict enough where they should be strict, too severe where greater leniency is called for’.
‘Only three years for hate speech that leads to people getting killed? Ridiculously soft,’ he said.
‘But six months for “hate trolling”? Are there enough prison places to lock up these hate trolls?’
He said the law needed to distinguish between ‘young and foolish’ individuals who say silly things and ‘really dangerous radicalisers and purveyors of violence who exploit the social media to wreak havoc and death’.
Professor Glees said the cases involving Greer and Tatchell could lead to confusion.
He said: ‘Are these social critics guilty of hate speech for asking awkward questions about gender interest groups? Or are those who attack them the true guilty ones?’