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Cracking the Twitter Nuts

Twitter is finding itself under the legal microscope on an almost daily basis with the police and prosecutors seemingly unsure what to do about it.

Hot on the heels of the ‘Twitter Joke Trial’ was the news that someone had been arrested for sending abusive messages to Tom Daley, which only became apparent when Tom retweeted the message to the world.  Then there was the news that the Blue Peter presenter Helen Skelton has decided to leave twitter due to abuse.  Kirsty Alsopp has taken a different view and decided to ignore the bullies.  Have a look here to see the rubbish that has been thrown at them.

What is interesting is the basis on which the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) can prosecute and the decisions they have to make when deciding to prosecute.

The recent ‘twitter joke trial’ could set a clear precedent for prosecution even if the actual process in the ‘joke trial’ was absolutely ridiculous.

For those who missed this one, a man posted a joke about blowing up Robin Hood airport if they didn’t ‘get their shit together’ in ‘a week and a bit.’  Once half a dozen jobsworths had got their hands on this tweet Paul Chambers found himself fined by magistrates under the Communications Act 2003.  Before anyone could mutter the word ‘proportionality’, QCs were battling it out before the Lord Chief Justice in the High Court.

As one observer pointed out, Chambers appeared before as many judges as Abu-Hamza in his extradition appeals.  What should be made clear is that Mr Chambers was not making any threats.  It was just a bad joke.

However, the court confirmed in this case that the Communications Act does apply to tweets and so the police and CPS have something in their armoury to deal with an increasing problem.  This must be a good thing when you consider what bile some people seem to throw at celebrities.

However, the CPS will face opposition, no matter what the charge is, from various quarters:  freedom of speech groups are up in arms, wallet pinchers are concerned about the public cost, others quote ‘sticks and stones’ and tell the celebs to man up.  I will ignore Twitter’s own responsibilities for cracking down on unsavoury users.

To counter this, the CPS will have to do what they are always meant to do and make decisions on individual cases according to their guidelines to prosecute.

The CPS requirements for deciding to prosecute are clear (I paraphrase a bit):

  1. On the evidence available, is there a realistic prospect of securing a conviction?
  2. Is it in the public interest to prosecute?

The evidence part is always an issue – the defence is pretty much automatically ‘I didn’t mean it, it was just a joke.’

However, it is the second part of the test that is really interesting.  Joe Public has never before had such immediate access to public figures.  The law has always needed to adapt to catch up as the world changes and the decision now for prosecutors will be whether the public interest is best served in not spending the cash and ignoring the bullies or overtly making public examples of them at the risk of the law looking overzealous in its approach.

For my part, using the criminal courts is undoubtedly a significant sized hammer to crush a spotty teenaged nut.  However, better that than letting the nuts spoil the social media world.

Mark Baldwin