Twitter jokes: free speech on trial

On 27 July, the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales handed down the final judgment in what had become known as the Twitter Joke Trial. Considering that this was the culmination of a two-and-a-half-year process, the assembled crowd didn’t get much of a show. It took only a few minutes for Paul Chambers to be told that he should never have been convicted of the charges that had been brought against him in Doncaster magistrates’ court, and was now acquitted. It was his third attempt to appeal the conviction.

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This feature first appeared in MacUser Vol 28 No 17, 17 August 2012. For more details visit the MacUser website.

So why was a trainee accountant of entirely blameless character arrested in front of his colleagues, questioned by police, charged by the Crown Prosecution Service, convicted, fined £1,000, fired from his job, and left dependent on the goodwill of celebrities, the donations of internet users and the tenacity of a legal blogger to put his life back together – all over one flippant tweet?

Sadly, the Director of Public Prosecutions has so far offered no good explanation. But at least, now that this bizarre case has finally been thrown out, we can be sure that nobody else will fall into the same black hole.

Or can we? Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003, under which Paul was charged, remains on the statute books and seems increasingly to be used as a catch-all for online behaviour that isn’t caught by more specific laws. And it’s not the only legislation being used against people who do no more than write words on a screen.

In some instances these laws may provide a necessary way to punish and deter the kind of verbal abuse that can make people’s online lives a misery, whether via Twitter, Facebook or other services. In others, it looks like a worryingly broad licence for the authorities to interfere with everyday speech, which increasingly takes place in the digital realm. And while the Lord Chief Justice’s remarks in the Twitter Joke Trial judgment provide a useful steer to police and prosecutors on when a communication can and can’t be considered ‘menacing’, more than enough ambiguities remain to blur the line that separates ordinary people from the nightmare of arrest, conviction, and even a potential jail sentence.

People like Paul Chambers.

One little tweet

Paul Chambers

On 6 January 2010, Paul was looking forward to a planned meeting with a woman he’d begun talking to on Twitter. Since she lived in Northern Ireland, and he in Yorkshire, he’d booked a flight from Robin Hood Airport Doncaster Sheffield, as the local transport hub is cumbersomely known, on the 15th. But he’d just learned from the internet that snow had forced the airport to close. During a series of tweets exchanging pleasantries with his date, who went (and still goes) by the handle @crazycolours, Paul 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!!”

Besides @crazycolours, this would have been seen by some of Paul’s 600-odd followers. Knowing Paul as they did, none of them thought it a particularly unusual tweet, and – like most things on Twitter – it quickly scrolled up the timeline and was forgotten.

A week later, police arrived at Paul’s place of work and asked for him by name. “My first thought was that perhaps a member of my family had been in an accident,” Paul later told the Independent. “Then they said I was being arrested under the Terrorism Act and produced a piece of paper. It was a print-out of my Twitter page. That was when it dawned on me.”

The officers involved would later say that they never took the tweet particularly seriously. But this seemed far from clear as they drove Paul to the police station and questioned him for two hours. After spending another hour in a cell, he was released while South Yorkshire police and the CPS decided how to proceed. His iPhone, which had been used to send the tweet, and two computers were impounded, despite the absence of any obvious reason why they would need to be examined.

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