“Offensive” tweeters won’t face prosecution

Users who post “offensive” messages on Twitter or other social media sites likely won’t be prosecuted, under guidelines finalised by the director of public prosecutions (DPP).

Keir Starmer issued interim guidelines late last year describing when people should be charged under the Communications Act for offensive messages, but said the final version remained much the same after several months of public consultation.

Under the finalised guidelines, people won’t be prosecuted simply for trolling or posting disturbing comments. Instead, the guidelines state there must be a “credible” threat of violence or evidence of harassment or stalking.

Children may not appreciate the potential harm and seriousness of their communications and a prosecution is rarely likely to be in the public interest

“Having considered the consultation responses, and our experience of dealing with these cases in recent months, I believe the guidelines do set out the right approach to prosecution by making the distinction between those communications that should be robustly prosecuted, such as those that amount to a credible threat of violence, a targeted campaign of harassment against an individual or which breach court orders, and those communications which may be considered grossly offensive, to which the high threshold must apply,” said Starmer.

A common sense approach

It isn’t exactly clear what qualifies as “grossly” offensive and the guidelines suggest there can “be no yardstick” other than common sense.

But anything that is simply “satirical, iconoclastic, rude comment or unfashionable opinion about serious or trivial matters, banter or humour” won’t qualify.

The guidelines also take into account the number of children increasingly posting unwise messages online, and said that a suspect’s age, if they’re under 18, should be given “significant weight”.

“Children may not appreciate the potential harm and seriousness of their communications and a prosecution is rarely likely to be in the public interest,” said the guidelines.

The guidelines follow several cases of users posting potentially offensive messages on social media sites without realising they might be breaking the law. Among the most high-profile cases was that of Paul Chambers, who successfully overturned his conviction of posting a menacing tweet after he jokingly wrote that he would blow his nearest airport “sky high” after it was closed by snow.

Both Starmer’s statement and the updated guidelines stressed that only “credible” threats of violence can be considered.

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