Twitter jokes on trial: how one tweet turned a man into a criminal
“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!“
And with that tweet, the life of Paul Chambers took a very wrong turn.
Chambers was referring to the fact that the airport was closed due to a snowstorm. He was flying out the next week from Doncaster, England to visit his girlfriend in Ireland and was anxious his flight would be canceled. He did what is a very common thing in the age of social media – he put his thoughts out there for people to read. He assumed what he said would be seen only by his followers, sort of like talking in a room full of friends. But days later, the tweet was found by airport manager Shaun Duffield who told the court yesterday that the threat was not considered to be credible and no effect on airport operations.
Even though higher authorities were taking charge on the perceived threat, one would think the saga would end there, where it was deemed non credible. They’d realize it was a joke, slap Chambers on the wrist while telling him not to do anything like that again, and move on. But that’s not what happened at all. Instead, the case was handed over to the Crown Prosecution Service.
Chambers was arrested, questioned for seven hours (where he had to explain Twitter to the people doing the questioning), suspended from his job and banned for life from Robin Hood airport. Yesterday, almost five months after what he thought was an innocuous – albeit hyperbolic - joke tweet, Paul Chambers was found guilty of sending a menacing message over a public telecommunications network. He was fined £385 plus £600 costs (which British actor/writer Stephen Fry has offered to pay) and now has a criminal record that will keep him from becoming an accountant.
Ill conceived as Chambers’s joke was, it was still just meant to be an expression of frustration between friends. That it got out there for first the airport and then the general public to see was not his intention. Yet here is, guilty of menacing.
Judge John Bennett’s decision said in part that he could not accept Paul’s explanation of his state of mind at the time of the tweet or his meaning behind the tweet at face value. And although the judge agreed that it was the prosecutor’s job to prove the case against Paul and not Paul’s job to prove his innocence, he seems to cast dispersions on Paul’s defense enough to base his decision on it, rather than on the prosecution. Citing that Paul’s tweet went to the “public timeline” unlike most of his other tweets, he shows a clear lack of understanding of how twitter works, which is something that would seem to be tantamount to the judge understanding the case before him.
I spoke with Paul’s girlfriend Sarah, who said “The judge seemed to disbelieve Paul. It was for the prosecution to prove guilt with mens rea, not for Paul to prove his innocence. Paul spoke under oath, his good character was not contested and was used as evidence, so the judge should have had no other option but to take what he said about his lack of awareness and intent as read. The prosecution lawyer himself said, before verdict that Paul would get acquitted. The prosecution argument even served Paul’s case positively. The statement released after the trial from the CPS actually contradicted the evidence in court from the CPS. The verdict didn’t make sense. ”
There’s a lot of gnashing of teeth over what this means as far as free speech and social media. But let’s look at what it means to Paul Chambers. It means, for now, that due to his criminal record he cannot become an accountant as he was training to do. It means that his career is over before it has started. It means his life is changed forever for saying something that no harm came out of and, more importantly, no harm was meant by.
His plight even caught the attention of actor Simon Pegg, who said yesterday on twitter: Don’t we fight costly wars in distant corners to protect such inalienable rights as freedom of speech? Slap his wrist if you must but this?!
My feelings exactly. Who did he harm by this? Who did he intend to harm? No one, a fact that was glaringly obvious to all involved, but it was decided to go ahead and prosecute anyhow, even if that meant having to change what Chambers was being charged with.
The CPS had decided to charge him, but not with the offence which Parliament actually legislated for in the 1977 Act, which would require them showing evidence of Paul Chambers intending others to believe there was a bomb hoax.
Instead the CPS decided to charge him under the little-known – and in many ways worrying – offence under section 127 of the Communications Act 2003. The 1977 Act, with its protection for defendants, was effectively side-stepped.
The next police statement said: “[a] 26-year-old Balby man has been charged with sending, by a public communications network, a
message that was grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character, contrary to section 127 of the Communications Act 2003.”
[.....]It can be inferred that Paul Chambers was prosecuted under section 127(1) – for sending a “menacing” message – not section 127(2), in respect of, say, causing annoyance, inconvenience or needless anxiety to another.
Now this is a different offence than for which Paul Chambers was arrested.
This 2003 provision is based on an earlier provision in the 1984 Telecommunications Act, which (in those pre-internet days) was intended to deal with nuisance telephone callers.
However, the broad definition of “public communications network” now means the offence covers the internet as much as a telephone call: and so it covers emails and internet postings of any kind.
If this doesn’t concern you (and you should read that whole link for an reading of the law), it should. As someone who is reading this right now on the Internet, chances are you tweet, use Facebook, blog, leave comments on blogs or send emails at the very least. Perhaps private jokes between friends are no longer private. Then again, perhaps it’s naive of us to expect any sort of privacy on the internet but still, a joke is a joke. Even bad jokes and ill-conceived jokes are harmless quips between people who understand each other’s sense of humor, as Paul’s followers surely did. Most of them got that he was frustrated and anxious. Most all of them knew that Paul Chambers, mild mannered finance manager, would never blow up Robin Hood airport in an effort to voice his frustration over his flight being grounded. Unfortunately, the police nor the CPS know Paul Chambers. While they presumably acted with the best interest of the nation in mind at the start, you have to wonder where there interests went as soon as they decided to take this case farther than a wrist slap.
Have you ever read the most popular tweets? If we were to take every tweet – or even ever Facebook status, email signature or blog comment - at face value instead of with a grain of salt and a sense of humor, the police would be rounding up people for child neglect, date rape, public lewdness, assault and battery, murder (especially of hobos), face stabbing and drinking and driving. But no one takes these things seriously. No one takes them as threats or as real instances of people leaving their children unattended or hiding in a neighbor’s bushes with a camera. Or do they? Granted, Paul’s tweet – if taken seriously – could be construed as something a little more dangerous than being a peeping tom, but you’d think after seven hours of questioning they’d realize it was a bad joke.
Sarah added that Paul was “surprised to be found guilty….. he also realizes this goes beyond him to the wider civil liberties issue. But he’s unfortunate enough to be the one at the centre. It could have been anyone. His life is [ruined]…”
All for a few words that apparently menaced no one but the people who are seemingly menacing Paul Chambers now.
As Paul himself said this evening on twitter: It costs time and money when they overreact to something that could’ve been resolved after a questioning. Anything else is draconian.
Anything else is also worrying and a little bit frightening. Doesn’t matter if you’re in England, the United States or anywhere else. Hyper vigilance lends itself to a shakedown of the innocent.
[Sound System will return to the regularly schedule music programming tomorrow]