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May. 11 2010 - 6:15 am | 6,589 views | 4 recommendations | 25 comments

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.

Paul Chambers (image from AP)

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.

From the  excellent Bad Law blog, which has covered this case from the beginning (see also his other blog here for extensive coverage)

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.

A friend of Paul’s has set up a fund to contribute to his legal defense. If you are on twitter, you can check the hashtag #twitterjoketrial to see just what this has all stirred up.

[Sound System will return to the regularly schedule music programming tomorrow]


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  1. collapse expand

    Certainly makes me think twice about my “stabby pen” jokes.

  2. collapse expand

    I love that you picked up on this, it is incredibly important. It happened in the UK, but the world is round and when precedents are set in one country, others use it as reference.

    The most dismaying thing about this whole incident was he was arrested and interrogated, but not put on trial under the terrorism act due to a lack of evidence, but was prosecuted because to do so was in the public interest (Pick the bones out of THAT!), and an old communications law that has never been used, hence has no point of reference for interpretation – let alone in the modern online world – was dragged out just so public example could be made.

    It really is sickening, an erosion of free speech and an example of a lack of common sense in a law now governed by scare politics.

    It was a bad joke. It was tasteless. It was insensitive, it was stupid. He was arrested, interrogated and no evidence was found of any ill intent… it should have ended there. The fact it didn’t would be laughable if the guys life wasn’t now in tatters.

    Respect is due for bringing this up on your platform.

  3. collapse expand

    Well put, Michele. I’m thrilled that you used your column to cover this; the more people who know what happened, the better. And kudos to Mr. Fry for his generosity.

  4. collapse expand

    I agree this is about free speech, but only in the context of yelling “fire” in a crowded theater when there was no threat. It’s a public safety issue and Paul Chambers’ right to free speech ends where my safety at the airport begins.

    Who cares if he didn’t intend to blow up the airport? The fact that he said it in a public forum made untold numbers of law enforcement officials jump through hoops to determine whether it was a serious threat. Not only should they charge him criminally, but they should make him pay back the costs of following up on his remark. Anyone with half a brain wouldn’t make a similar comment on the security line at the airport, so why is OK on Twitter?

    Stupidity does have its consequences, and I suspect he’s being prosecuted as an example to anyone else who might consider a similarly thoughtless act.

    • collapse expand

      You understand context right? Yelling fire in a crowded theatre is very different to a joke about blowing up a closed airport week later.

      One will cause panic immediately and have a very immediate and physical effect, the other is investigated and deemed a joke, albeit a very poor one and in terrible taste.

      In an airport you are specifically warned with good reason because you are again, in an immediate and hyper sensitive environment with very serious people doing a very serious job with very little sense of humour about it – professionally without a sense of humour in fact.

      If stupidity was in fact against the law, Walmart would go out of business and you would have trouble getting a cheeseburger.

      Here is a current list of all the people on Twitter that should be arrested right now:

      http://bit.ly/9ZzCj2

      In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        Yes, as a matter of fact I do. The technicality you’re grappling with is imminence and proximity. In today’s world, that whole notion is rendered moot. A command to blow something up could be given entire continents away.

        Look, for the most part I believe much of the gyrations we go through to feel secure at airports is theatrical at best. There’s no way we’ll ever be able to feel 100% safe. That said, do I want every lead no matter how improbable to be followed up on? Absolutely. This man was a seasoned traveler who should know better. And as someone else pointed out, if you think your conversations on the Internet are private, you’re dreaming.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
        • collapse expand

          That’s the whole point. The lead was followed up, he was questioned to the satisfaction of no evidence.

          Then it was decided he should be prosecuted on an unused law that has already been made irrelevent by new media and communications because it was “in the public interest”.

          In the public interest at that point was surely to save thousands in tax payers money and concentrate on genuine threats.

          At this point the terrorists win – people are that terrified that a word spoken in poor jest becomes worthy of a criminal record.

          I point out again… should these people be investigated by the police?

          http://bit.ly/bLutYU

          In response to another comment. See in context »
          • collapse expand

            So what are you saying? That because we can’t possibly follow up on all the leads we should follow up on none of them? That’s ridiculous.

            That’s a bit like saying no one should ever get a ticket for running a red light because there isn’t always a cop around to see it happen. Sorry, Mr. Chambers just happened to be the lucky one to get caught, and they should throw the book at him.

            In response to another comment. See in context »
          • collapse expand

            Are you being willfully ignorant? I stated what I was saying. Context and intent is everything. An insistence on interpreting all statements in a strictly literal fashion is both stupid and dangerous.

            “I’m going to kill my husband when he gets home!”

            Occasionally it actually happens, but when someone overhears it they can work out wether someone means to actually kill their husband or it’s hyperbole, and they are simply going to be mad at him.

            If the police are called, they can work out if the intent was there. If it’s not, you don’t get sent to jail anyway in the public interest.

            In response to another comment. See in context »
          • collapse expand

            You can call me all the names you like, but doing so isn’t going to persuade me. The authorities have a mandate to check on potential terrorist threats. I’m glad they are doing so, even if some of them turn out to be dead ends. I don’t see Mr. Chambers’ actions any differently than the “Balloon Boy” family who led the authorities and emergency service personnel on a wild goose chase for hours. One man’s joke is another man’s wasted public time and money. The question is not about his intent; it’s about the fact he should have known better.

            In response to another comment. See in context »
          • collapse expand

            So “Should have known better” is worthy of a conviction?

            The whole point is he WAS investigated, he was thoroughly questioned.

            You do understand that, right?

            He was then not prosecuted under any terrorism law because there was no evidence.

            You understand that, right?

            You understand the a law was dragged out with no prior casesfrom thirty years ago as “a conviction is in the public interest”.

            A conviction for a bad taste and inappropriate joke.

            They checked a potential terrorist threat, found there wasn’t one, then convicted decided he should be convicted anyway.

            I heard a kid shout at another kid earlier “I’m going to kill you!”. She didn’t mean it. A train station platform of people and a policeman knew she didn’t mean it. She didn’t get arrested. She was joking badly with hyperbole. I’m not sure she should have been arrested for should have known better.

            Here is the transcript of the judge’s decision if you want the full story:

            http://jackofkent.blogspot.com/2010/05/paul-chambers-disgraceful-and-illiberal.html

            My full opinion: Yes, he should have been pulled up for questioning and the actual threat determined. It was a stupid thing to say. However, it should have ended there once Police were satisfied he was no threat.

            In response to another comment. See in context »
          • collapse expand

            I’m not appreciating your tone, Mr. Wright. I’m debating, you’re bullying. Calling me ignorant and using condescension doesn’t make your case any stronger. It simply makes you look like a jerk.

            Let’s agree to disagree, shall we?

            In response to another comment. See in context »
    • collapse expand

      Even better, this will keep Police busy for a while:

      http://bit.ly/bLutYU

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  5. collapse expand

    Hmmm…I’m not so sure. Where exactly do we draw the line? Will we then stop blaming our governments when something goes horribly wrong (like 911) and they missed it? Maybe they thought it was just a joke and not worth checking out??? Or do we go with profiling and because this man is white and working on becoming an accountant he must be upstanding and not worth the effort???

    And really…do you believe his life is over now? Do you really believe he’s never going to amount to anything because of a stupid twitter joke? I’m much more inclined to think he’s about to become VERY famous and probably will be co-hosting with someone on CNN where he can pretty much say whatever he wants and everyone really will know it’s just a joke…

    When governments stop checking people out because they’re too busy laughing at their jokes, things will get much worse than fear of losing our ability to threaten airports via twitter…

  6. collapse expand

    In the meantime….not to offend the Muslims, they let them through without checking them…

  7. collapse expand

    The problem with just giving Mr. Chambers a slap on the wrist is that it opens the door to millions of other internet users that they’ll never be held accountable for their actions. Whether you like it or not, all threats have to be investigated. As Mr. Chambers notes, that costs time and money and diverts resources to other (real) threats. Does Mr. Chambers see the irony in his statement? Perhaps if he hadn’t published such an idiotic tweet in the first place, time and money would not have been spent diverting resources to deal with his published comment.

    On the privacy issue. It’s comical that someone of the millenial generation is now complaining about the intended privacy of this comments. Millenials are at the forefront of stripping all of us of our privacy whether we want to or not, yet he’s now complaining that this was meant to be private? This is utterly laughable. Perhaps Millenials will now stop and consider what we old fogey gen-xers are so worked up about when we talk about privacy issues.

    Finnally, this whole case is yet one more reason why anonynimity MUST END on the internet. Anonymity is what is killing the web. Wholesale theft, fraud, trolling, misrepresentations, and on and on this list goes. All because people are able to use one of the most powerful tools in human history anonymously. That must end. If users know that they cannot do anything anonymously they will give much more serious thought to what they do and publish on the internet.

  8. collapse expand

    This man is an idiot. Pay up and next time shut up.

  9. collapse expand

    Insistence on interpreting all statements in a strictly literal fashion is not only dim, it’s dangerous. Life is unavoidably about context – removing the ability to consider context does not make anyone safer. Prosecuting dumb jokes about airports does not somehow make airports less vulnerable to attack. Throughout the millenia of human existence, intense fear has consistently led people to do or acquiesce to horrible things. Our culture has progressed far, in many different ways, but this unfortunate human susceptibility to fear remains intact.

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    About Me

    Music is my true passion. Listening to it, talking about it, writing about it. Definitely not playing it.

    I live on Long Island. I have two kids (17 and 20) a dog (a miniature schnauzer) and a boyfriend (a transplanted Californian). We all aim to move to California one day. I take pictures, I write stories, I eat sushi and I play video games.

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