madaxeman

February 6, 2011

The Twitter Joke Trial, and Why It Matters!

Filed under: Uncategorized — madaxeman @ 1:11 pm

What is The Twitter Joke Trial?

The “Twitter Joke Trial”, or #TwitterJokeTrial, is the common name used for the a court case brought against a Mr. Paul Chambers, at the time of Doncaster, England, following an ill-judged post using the Twitter service.

In January 2010, Paul was looking forward to a trip to Northern Ireland to meet a young lady he had been conversing with on the internet. Things had been going well, the girl involved had offered to meet him, and all seemed rosy. Unfortunately the gods intervened, and Doncaster was beset by a spell of inclement weather, leading the the closure of the airport that Paul intended to fly from (Robin Hood Airport, Doncaster…). In his frustration, Paul tweeted the following:

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!!

Let me be the first to concede this is not the smartest thing ever posted to the internet. I don’t think Paul would argue with me, because :

  • He was arrested at his office by Anti-terrorism officers.
  • Convicted under the Section 127 1a of the Communications Act 2003 of sending a menacing message.
  • Went through an appeal hearing, which he also lost.
  • Ended up having to pay around £3,000 in fines and costs.
  • Lost two jobs as a result of the case.
  • Cannot now pursue his career in Accountancy, as this cannot be done with a criminal conviction.

Why do I view this as a miscarriage of justice?

I attended both days of Paul’s appeal before Doncaster Crown Court, and I was left very uneasy about this case from the start.

The fact that Paul sent the message, together with it’s precise content, is not in dispute. Essentially, the points that I think are in dispute come down to two issues…

Menacing?

The first matter that needs to be addressed is whether or not the message is indeed menacing. I would contend that is not, because it’s clearly a joke – a man expressing frustration about potential disruption to his travel plans. The message wasn’t sent to the airport either.

No reasonable person, despite what the Judge thought, could interpret this as menacing. Really – how many terrorist organisations are there out there demanding the prompt restoration of services at airports? How many terrorists give a week and a bit of notice of their evil deeds?

Finally, it should be noted that at the time of the “Tweet”, Paul had 690 followers. Not one of them was sufficiently menaced to report the matter. None. Zero. Nada…

Intent

In order for the offense to be commited, there also has to be a dimension to matters referred to as the “mens rea”. Now, I am not a legal bod and I have no wish to try to become one, but having discussed the matter with Paul’s defence team I am told that this is essentially concerned with two matters.

  1. Did he intend the message to be menacing?
  2. When he sent to message, did he consider it possible that someone might interpret the message as threatening?

Now, 1 is out of the window. The court seemed to accept this as well.

2 is a little more interesting. Clearly Paul didn’t consider that the message might be taken seriously, because if he had, there is no way he would have killed a respectable, lucrative career in Accountancy for 140 characters of “fun”.

The court however took the view that he must have been aware that someone would take it seriously, despite the fact that no-one, at any stage in the prosecution, actually had. Nor, as I mentioned, had any of Paul’s many followers on Twitter. In order to arrive at the conclusion they did, the Judge basically invented what in her mind represented a typical elderly couple, travelling for the first time, and ascribed her own view – that they would see this as menacing – to them. Nice. Almost a Martin Luther King moment in fact – “I have a dream…” if you will…

Why should I care though?

Well, the first thing to realise is that the law Paul was convicted under does not only concern “menacing” messages – but also messages that might be deemed “grossly offensive”. Given that more and more of us are using social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, and also the “shoot from the hip” style of many of these sites, we simply can’t rule out that someone, somewhere might be “grossly offended” by something we write. Indeed – it’s worse that that – we need to rule out that some Judge somewhere can’t imagine that someone might be so offended.

If the decision is allowed to stand as is, you all, every last one of you – to a man, woman, and child, need to be very careful what you say online, and to whom.

What happens now then?

I’m pleased to say that Paul isn’t prepared to simply sit down and take his medecine like the naughty child the state seems to view him as being. He’s actually decided that, being innocent, he will fight on. To that end, he is taking his case to The High Court. This isn’t a cheap process, but fortunately a number of users on Twitter have managed to raise £10,000 to help fund the fight. And fight we shall…

I’ve had a meeting with the leader of the Labour Party, Ed Miliband MP (happens to be my own MP…) to discuss the case, and I am waiting for him to come back to me. Please – write to your own MP – contact your local newspaper – DO SOMETHING! Freedom of Expression is one of the most basic freedoms we enjoy in this country, and whether you like it or not it is under attack.

 

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