The Twitter “Bomb Hoax” case: worse than we thought?

  • Print
  • Comments (33)

Readers' comments (33)

  • Thanks again for an insightful and well reasoned post. If only the creators of our rapidly multiplying legislature could apply the same reason...

    So then, does this imply that the CPS could bring around a prosecution in the case of a 'flame' comment in a blog, even if no one specifically takes offence. The mere existence of a 'grossly offensive' remark becomes one of the judgement of the prosecutor rather than an actual aggreived person?

    If this is the case, it is indeed worrying for anyone who has ever tapped out an ill conceived message and then hit 'send'. A few more prosecutions of this type and the internet will become a bit of a wasteland - or at least it will in the UK where the thought police will be after you.

    Does this, then, begin to seriously erode on the ideals of free speech? I agree with the sentiment above, by Oliver Wendell Holmes, but when the CPS can invoke section 127 like this, I really do begin to fear its consequences for freedom of expression.

    G.

    (Should express vested interests; I'm a member of LPUK.)

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • An excellent post on something that (bloggers et al) should most definitely be aware of.
    Reading your article it looks like what the CPS are saying that as long as my messages with regards to anthrax, Ebola and atomised heavy metals injected into air conditioning units aren't 'menacing' they can't get me. I'm working very hard to come up with a method of discussing terrorist attacks involving these ideas that isn't menacing. Judging by their response and examples I can make these comments anywhere, go to an airport ready to be picked up prior to prosecution.
    This worrying story makes my own anecdote makes me more grateful for the outcome of my own run in with airport security: I accidentally (rush to catch the plane etc) wore a t-shirt through Heathrow the other day with a picture of Stewie (from family guy) holding a flame thrower; a guard at the security check point told me off for it. Looks like I got off light as no doubt CPS would prosecute me for being 'menacing'.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • Would there be scope for a challenge under Article 10 on the issue of proportionality?

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • Great analysis, and a true travesty of freedom of expression...even more so as it has been so under-reported.
    The ramifications of the use of this law are terrifying. It is clear this law existed for the use of one to one communications where there was a specific recipient targeted by an individual. How it should ever be judged that the law now also applies to one to many communications where the originator doesn't even know who will be a recipient is absolutely beyond me.
    We have to keep these laws up to date, otherwise injustices like this are all too easy to carry out. The worst of it all seems to be that it is carried out for no-one's gain other than the police and CPS.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • All internet users in the UK should be grateful that Allen is prepared to devote the time to investigate such abuses of law as this. However, there seems to be a rather more fundamental inconsistency in the authorities' approach to this case, as captured in the results of his enquiries.
    The CPS are quoted as explaining why this prosecution was seen to be in the public interest by arguing that “While Mr Chambers may have meant this as a joke, the airport could not risk treating it as such. The threat had to be taken seriously by the airport authorities, who contacted the police. It caused unnecessary disruption because of a malicious communication.”
    But Allen also observes that "of course, no alarm or distress - let alone “unnecessary alarm of distress” – had been caused whatsoever. The silly joke had been reported to the police and the airport by a third party; it would appear that no one who saw the tweet regarded it as serious. The airport later confirmed no inconvenience had been caused, other than in respect of the investigation."
    So, if the silly joke was reported to the police by a third party, and the airport confirmed that no inconvenience had been caused to the travelling public or airport staff, where does that leave the CPS assertion that they could not afford to treat it as a joke? What, exactly, did the airport do in response to Paul Chambers' tweet that merits the CPS assessment of it as being "of menacing character"? It appears the answer is nothing at all.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • I am trying to weigh up boths sides here from the CPS's point of view. I think the real question here is the motive of the CPS. Are they trying to set a precident here so they can prosecute anyone stupid enough to make a real threat via a blog/twitter, or are they trying to stop/discourage people from doing this again?

    At this point I will point out that I don't know the person so will presume he is a nice sensible person who made the hoax out of frustration at his flight being cancelled and possibly trying to make some fun of the situation. The fact that he pleaded guilty also shows that he realises he fucked up/what an idiot he was. As far as I know there is no particular regulation that he could be prosecuted under for being stupid so that left the CPS option with a limited set of options.
    1) Do nothing (no deterant to the next comedian hoaxer)
    2) Caution him (a deterent but won't be widely publisised)
    3) Prosecute him (make an example of him, reaches every area in the country and beyond)

    The CPS seemed to have went for option 3) so that means they need to make sure he is made a big an example of as posisble. Given that there was a good chance he would have gotten off on Section 51 of the Criminal Law Act 1977. That left them only Section 127 of the Communication Act 2003. Yes they are stretching the Law here and ignoring its intention and this is where their key motive is underlined again: setting a precident for use of the Communications Act to blogs/twitter or to deter the next person from making a hoax via a blog/twitter.

    My personal opinion is he should have got a small slap on the wrists (cautioned) and a strong lecture on why bomb hoaxes are not funny.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • An excellent analysis, highlighting of course that the only matter of public interest in this instance is not the prosecution of Paul Chambers, rather the loss of liberty, the loss of the the right to freedom of expression and the manipulation of statute.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • Of course it is in the public interest when someone making a silly joke that offends someone is treated as a criminal.

    Ooops, that was a silly joke that probably offended someone. Please don't communicate it as I might be prosecuted under section 127 of the Communications Act 2003.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • Wait... according to §127 2. c), persistently being annoying on the internets is a criminal act!

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • I can tell that you are not a criminal lawyer!
    1. The Communications act is NOT a little known act. It is a reenactment of the telecommunications act and is used ALL THE TIME. Many errant husbands and boyfriends could tell you that!
    2. It doesn't matter if one is not charged with the offence one is arrested for. Suppose I stabbed you, and was arrested for GBH (GRIEVOUS bodily harm). Luckily, at the hospital, you are found to have only a scratch, because my knife was plastic. I've still assaulted you, but the prosecution cannot prove the initial charge, as there is no injury to sustain it. I'd be charged with the lesser offence, that the prosecution can prove, of common assault. Likewise, if you were to have died (because my knife wasn't plastic!) my charge would be increased to murder... nobody would disagree with the CPS deciding to do that!
    3. There is an absolute public interest in having updated the telecommunications act to include electronic communication (ie social networking, the internet, email...)! Otherwise, if a man is sending his ex-wife threatening emails, he would escape prosecution. Surely you would agree that even if his ex-wife does not open these emails - and thus they are unread - he should be prosecuted for having sent them in the first place. He shouldn't get off because she's too scared to open her emails!
    4. You haven't said exactly what terms the threat was in. Presumably the defendant knew that bomb threats are particularly menacing in the current climate - that's why he chose that way to express himself! Apparently someone DID find this sufficiently menacing to complain, and the police would have been negligent not to put the airport on alert. We can't have it both ways: people would have been pretty upset if a bomb had been planted and the police hadn't warned anybody or even investigated!
    5. Once the police feel forced to investigate, they are entitled to arrest and charge. The public interest in this lies in the fact that the defendant chose a particularly sensitive way of expressing his threat, and it is also right that there should be a deterrent effect. That is why he wasn't cautioned.
    6. the defendant in this case clearly accepts this reasoning, as he pleaded guilty!
    7. it is absolutely right that there should be a law extending to social networking sites that prevents people going beyond normal comment and banter into specific unlawful threats.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • Is there no organization that could have filed an amicus curiae on this case? It seems ridiculous to me that he should have pleaded guilty to this when it's likely a conviction would have been overturned in a European court. This example (I'm familiar with it) is so obviously protected free speech.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • In response to Marianne, the case has been publicized elsewhere. In context, it is clear that this was a free expression of hyberbole. See this article: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/twitter-joke-led-to-terror-act-arrest-and-airport-life-ban-1870913.html

    ' When heavy snowfall threatened to scupper Paul Chambers's travel plans, he decided to vent his frustrations on Twitter by tapping out a comment to amuse his friends. "Robin Hood airport is closed," he wrote. "You've got a week and a bit to get your shit together, otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!!" '

    It was not meant to be taken literally, but apparently one person took it that way and phoned the police, who ought to have been able to use their common sense filters to see it for what it was. I could tweet "I'm so hungry I could eat a horse." I would not expect to be receiving angry letters from the RSPCA. The broad view that the CPA have taken in this case threatens all sorts of expression. For example, this view would have held that the BBC committed a crime when it broadcast Jerry Springer the Opera, as it used a public communications channel to transmit electronically something "grossly offensive, or of an indecent obscene or menacing character”. I find this highly objectionable.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • @Marianne:

    No one's disputing that the Communications act should be used in the kind of cases you mention. But those are genuine cases of threats being made. Do you really think it should be used when the message was taken as a joke by the recipient?

    "it is absolutely right that there should be a law extending to social networking sites that prevents people going beyond normal comment and banter into specific unlawful threats."

    But not one that prevents normal comment and banter simply because someone, somewhere might be thick enough to believe it's a genuine threat.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • Overall, I do happen to agree with Marianne, whose thoughtful contribution answered two of the nagging questions preying on my mind after reading this article.

    I think that the biggest difficuly in this arena is that there is seemingly no hard-and-fast demarcation line which we can use to sort out the jokers from e.g. the Richard Reid types who might not present as motivated, would-be bombers with strategic intent, but who are essentially just as dangerous. The police & the much-maligned CPS) have a very hard balancing act to carry out, and call me a cynic but in my view, as with child protection workers, it is only when the police get things wrong and people are hurt, that the libertarians suddenly become conspicuous by their absence and (atypical) silence.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • @onyidzin

    Don't assume that nobody is hurt when the police overstep their authority or that those who oppose this type of overextension are libertarians by nature. Paul Chambers was suspended from his job pending in investigation on charges of gross misconduct (bringing the company into disrepute). I am not aware of any resolution to this disciplinary action. He was also initially banned for life from Robin Hood airport, although that has since been lifted. We are all injured by the infringement of others' civil liberties. A case such as this could serve as a precedent in many others. Plus its simply a waste of publicly funded man hours chasing down such red herrings as this. The big problem here is that there is no burden for the CPS to prove the Chambers intended his remarks to be taken literally (as a threat). In context it's clear to me that his intention was hyperbole to express his exasperation. I fell into nearly the same trap on Twitter myself when I once tweeted something to the effect of "If I hear one more politican say the US govt heath plan will 'unlplug grandma' I'm gonna get on a plane and unplug theirs myself'.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • A person is guilty of an offence if, for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience or needless anxiety to another, he—persistently makes use of a public electronic communications network.

    Praise the Lord -- "trolling" on the internet is illegal! Could somebody let the commenters on Guido Fawkes know?

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • An interesting contribution by Marianne which eloquently puts the other side of the story. But I'm afraid this "we have to take it seriously" argument does not wash.

    Take it seriously up to and including questioning of the individual if you must; the moment it became clear that this was a stupid joke (which was arguably at the moment the reasonable person would have read Chambers' tweet), the investigation should have gone no further. That it did, and that a prsecution has resulted, is a colossal waste of public money. He is being made an example of, but this also sets a dangerous precedent. A facetious example this may be, but does this mean I now can't tweet that David Cameron should take a running jump off Beachy Head without being arrested and charged with incitement to commit public nuisance?

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • Here is a link to a letter of complaint that I intend to send today to the CPS and other interested parties. Please get behind this with me if you agree:

    http://flay.jellybee.co.uk/2010/03/cps-v-paul-j-chambers.html

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • At last Marianne points out the obvious. My concern here is that chances are most of you above are lawyers, possibly even qualified. Not one of you points out that you have not had any sight whatsoever of the evidence and yet you all deem fit to criticise a decision made on facts you haven’t seen.
    I agree that the extension of any law may be unwelcome but in this case this is the kind of instance this Act was aimed at. It, as is rightly pointed out, is there to deal with those people who don't go far enough but are none the less threatening or menacing. I can not help but agree with Marianne that, having dealt with numerous case of domestic violence, stalking and harassment over the years, that the law should protect people from threats regardless of either receipt or not or even if they are unaffected by the message.
    Consider someone who rings your place of work, makes some vague threat about a device but doesn’t mention explosions, bombs, chemicals etc. Perhaps he, as pointed out, may be dissatisfied with the service he received and this message is where he "F**ked up". You may ignore it or it could cause widespread panic, evacuation etc. Either way the response is not the issue, it is the criminality of making the menacing call in the first place.
    Generally the article is thought provoking and clearly has stimulated debate. but lets base our judgments on the evidence, not someone’s opinion.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • This seems to be yet another example of the CPS/police going off the deep end on an issue which was clearly a joke, when the practical reality on the ground is that there are all too many instances of real crime where they do nothing.

    My own case in point: about 5 years ago I received not one but two anonymous death-threats left on the voicemail on my mobile phone, naming me but a voice I didn't recognise.

    I went to the police who advised me to play my voicemails - which I had saved - into a tape recorder to save them, as their procedures were too slow and the mobile phone company would have deleted the msg and call record by the time they got to it. Then when I got ANOTHER death threat, they could act as a 'watch' would have been set up on my line, and the first two instances used as proof of malice.

    By which time of course I could be dead. Gee, thanks.

    This latest nonsensical prosecution and warping of the law seems to me to be yet another example of the state (police/CPS) wanting to tape down every single possible avenue of dissent (public assembly, public criticism, humour...) by creating precedent which can be swiftly relied upon to quickly crush any non-mainstream thought or communication.

    Call me paranoid, but...

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

View results 10 per page | 20 per page | 50 per page

Have your say

Mandatory Required Fields

Mandatory

Comments that are in breach or potential breach of our terms and conditions in particular clause 8, may not be published or, if published, may subsequently be taken down. In addition we may remove any comment where a complaint is made in respect of it. These actions are at our sole discretion.

  • Print
  • Comments (33)