Twitter joke ruling hailed as victory for free speech
A high court ruling overturning the conviction of Paul Chambers, who was found guilty of sending a menacing tweet, has been greeted as a victory for freedom of speech.
The decision, handed down by the lord chief justice, Lord Judge, represents a significant shift in the legal system’s treatment of social media sites, signalling that comments should be read in the context of online communications.
Chambers, 27, a trainee accountant, said he was “relieved and vindicated”, adding: “It’s ridiculous that it ever got so far.” He had always maintained that he did not believe anyone would take his “silly joke” seriously.
In January 2010, he had tweeted in frustration when he discovered that his local airport in Doncaster was closed by snow. Eager to see his girlfriend, he sent out a tweet declaring: “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!!”
Chambers was arrested by South Yorkshire police and convicted by district judge Jonathan Bennett sitting at Doncaster magistrates court and fined £1,000. He was prosecuted under section 127(1) of the Communications Act 2003, which prohibits sending “by means of a public electronic communications network a message or other matter that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character”.
In November 2010, crown court judge Jacqueline Davies, sitting with two magistrates, dismissed his appeal, saying that the electronic communication was “clearly menacing” and that airport staff were sufficiently concerned to report it.
The lord chief justice, sitting with Mr Justice Owen and Mr Justice Griffith Williams, said airport staff did not believe the message was a credible threat. Allowing Chambers’ appeal, they commented: “We have concluded that, on an objective assessment, the decision of the crown court that this tweet constituted or included a message of a menacing character was not open to it. On this basis, the appeal against conviction must be allowed.”
During the appeal, John Cooper QC, who represented Chambers, had said: “If that be the case, and I don’t mean to be flippant, John Betjeman would be concerned when he said ‘Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough’, or Shakespeare when he said ‘Let’s kill all the lawyers’.”
Outside court, Chambers said: “It was a long, hard road. I would like to thank everyone on Twitter.” He had lost two jobs because of his conviction, he said, but it was now time to move on.
Louise Mensch, who is Chambers’s constituency MP, was in court to hear him cleared. “The Crown Prosecution Service [CPS] owe the whole country an enormous apology,” she said, “for having wasted public money and put him through two and a half years of serious stress for what was a joke,” she said.
“When parliament returns we will be asking searching questions about why freedom of speech was trashed. There was nothing menacing about this message. It was completely obvious.”
Cooper said: “It’s an important decision for social networks. It means that in future not only does a message have to be of a truly menacing character but the person who sends it has to intend it to be menacing.
“Now people can have a joke even if it’s a bad joke … This case should never have been prosecuted and it may be that the CPS will have questions to answer about this.”
David Allen Green, Chambers’s solicitor, said: “This shameful prosecution should never have been brought. There are very serious questions for the director of public prosecutions to answer.”
After the lord chief justice left the high court, there was celebration and applause. The comedian Al Murray was one of those in court to support Chambers. “It’s a victory for common sense,” he said. “It’s extraordinary this ever came to court. The judges saw there was no menacing message. It’s a really important victory.”
Index on Censorship, the free speech campaign group, welcomed the court ruling. “[This is] an advance in the justice system’s handling of free speech on the web,” said Kirsty Hughes, the organisation’s chief executive. “As more and more of us use social media, it is important that the law understands how people communicate online. This ruling is a step in the right direction.”
A CPS spokesman said: “It was important that the high court deliver a judgment on this matter so that both the public and those working in the criminal justice system could be certain of the law regarding the sending of menacing messages. We respect the court’s decision and will not be appealing.”