The High Court will hear on appeal the case of the man convicted of "menace" for threatening to blow up an airport in a Twitter joke. The hearing will be held on the 10 November 2011. Paul Chambers, a former accounts manager, tweeted: “Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. Youve got a week and a bit to get your s**t together otherwise Im blowing the airport sky high!!".
The airport found the tweet in a routine web search and, although evaluated as “non credible”, passed the matter on to South Yorkshire police. Chambers was then detained for most of the day, had his home raided, computer seized and lost his job after the trial. Judge Jacqueline Davies described the message as “clearly menacing” and ruled that Chambers must have known it might be taken seriously.
The legislative provision under which Chambers was charged was section 127 of the Communications Act 2003, which makes it an offence to send “by means of a public electronic communications network a message or other matter that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene, or menacing character”.
Judge Jacqueline Davies verdict led to a huge uproar on Twitter, with many retweeting Chambers original offending message in reaction to the judgement. Due to costs Chambers reserved a decision on a further appeal after the ruling at Doncaster. However, intense fundraising on Twitter and elsewhere, including a message from Stephen Fry saying: "Whatever they fine you, Ill pay", afforded Chambers the opportunity to appeal the decision against his conviction.
Implications for tweeting have also been raised by comments by Conservative councillor, Gareth Compton, who sent out a "joke" message asking for someone to stone to death Muslim newspaper columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown. Compton, who apologised for the tweet and did not stand in the May elections, was arrested; the case has since been dropped by the CPS due to insufficient evidence.
The Twitter Joke trial has been controversial, to say the least. Tweeters and other social network followers have expressed concern that their rights to freedom of expression have been undermined by the court’s ruling. Now that Chambers’ appeal will be heard in the High Court, it will be interesting to see the extent of any discussion of the proposed Defamation Bill and Article 10 (right to freedom of expression) of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Arguably, the proposed Defamation Bill does little clarify the interpretation of statements on social networks. Indeed, the right to trial by Jury is to be restricted to only when the court orders so. Further, it is questionable whether the majority of Judges truly appreciate the impact of social media technology on modern-day communication. Perhaps, it is necessary for more guidelines in regards to context and comments made on social media forums, where ‘bad taste’ humour is, relatively, unrestricted.