Charging a frustrated tweeter for his ‘menacing’ airport message was a waste of time and money
Long distance relationships are always difficult to keep going. It must be frustrating when you are apart from the one you love and Paul Chambers, stuck near Doncaster in the snow, may have been feeling this when he tweeted to a girl in Northern Ireland: “Crap! Robin Hood Airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I am blowing the airport sky high!”
No one who saw this tweet considered it a credible security threat. South Yorks Police thought it nothing other than a foolish joke, but passed it to the Crown Prosecution Service. The CPS, for reasons that are inexplicable other than on the basis that it was a slack day in the office, prosecuted under section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 (sending a message of a menacing character via a public electronic communications network). After a conviction and one unsuccessful appeal, the High Court overturned the conviction. As the judges left the bench, those in court burst into spontaneous applause.
The High Court judgment is refreshingly clear. First and incidentally, the court quite rightly rules that Twitter is a “public electronic communications network”: a tweet on a public timeline can be clearly regarded as addressed to the public as a whole.
A communication is not “menacing” if people who read it would brush it aside as a silly joke, or “empty bombastic or ridiculous banter”. The fact that the message may cause inconvenience to those such as airport authorities who are reading it is not relevant. Good: the criminal justice system is not there to save people from inconvenience.
The court also considered the intent of the tweeter if this crime is to be proved. Although the court agreed with the prosecution that it is sufficient to convict if the tweeter at the least recognises the risk that the message might create fear or apprehension in the mind of the public, the Lord Chief Justice warned that if the tweeter genuinely intended a joke, even one in poor taste, then the requisite mens rea will be difficult to establish. That is not the same as pretending something threatening or menacing to be a joke being enough to ensure an acquittal; such a tweeter can expect hard cross examination as to whether they really meant it.
This is a prosecution that should never have been brought, it being obvious to the meanest intelligence that the tweet was an idle joke, maybe in poor taste but a joke or expression of frustration nevertheless. No-one in authority at the airport took any action on it and only the CPS thought it worth taking the matter further – a scandalous waste of public money.
This case is not carte blanche for an unregulated Twitter. It is clear that Twitter is a public network to which the Communications Act applies. No one can use the word ‘joke’ as a means of escaping liability where there is genuine menace. Common sense, so severely lacking in this silly prosecution, works both ways.
To end on a more cheerful note, Paul Chambers is now engaged to the lady he was hoping to see in Northern Ireland. The DPP should buy them a generous wedding present – out of his own pocket.