The PIP in the TwitterJokeTrial

The Paul Chambers Twitter Joke Trial verdict has attracted all kinds of national and international media interest, not to mention the near hysteria it has caused on Twitter.

I have made some coments on http://charonqc.wordpress.com/2010/11/11/law-review-twitter-joke-trial-a-travesty-why-do-we-really-bother/#comments, and some of those comments are reproduced below:

Hmmm, I am not surprised by the verdict, which does not necessarily mean I agree with it, I simply do not know enough about the finer details of the case.

What I will say is that behind every law and/or prosecution, there is a public policy decision (read motive). The policy decision in this case MAY BE one to discourage “joke” threats, whether on Twitter or elsewhere IN ORDER TO minimise the “leads” the police and security services have to follow up on a daily basis. We know resources there are not unlimited and already they are following up on dozens if not hundreds of leads every day (that is not a fact, just my assumption).

Some genuine threats may go un-investigated because of the sheer volume of leads, jokes or otherwise. It just takes one nutter to publicly utter a genuine threat which is “missed” or not taken seriously, and which is later actually carried out and police/security services heads will roll, not to mention any damage to life/limb/property, which of course is the result none of us wants.

Is this a free speech issue? No, I do not believe so. If I utter something which you perceive as menacing, then I have done wrong, in the same way I must not incite racial hatred by making inflammatory or menacing comments.

Is this a civil liberty vs security issue? Possibly, and the balance may have gone too far towards “security”. It will be interesting to see how the case ends up further down the line.

Finally, was it the case that the Yorkshire Ripper might have been apprehended sooner and some lives saved had it not been for all the hoax calls which diverted police resources?

The following passages from the House of Lords judgment in the case of DPP v Collins (2006) may be of interest. This case was referred to by Mr Chambers’ legal team as well as the Judge in the recent appeal. The case concerned offensive messages but the wording of S.127(1) includes menacing messages too. (Capitalisation below is mine) :-“The very act of sending the message over the public communications network … constitutes the offence even if it was being communicated to someone who the sender KNEW WOULD NOT BE IN ANY WAY OFFENDED or distressed by it”.

Lord Bingham of Cornhill : “it must be proved that the respondent intended his words to be offensive to those to whom they related or BE AWARE THAT THEY MAY BE TAKEN TO BE SO.” … “It can make no difference to criminal liability whether a message is ever actually received or WHETHER THE PERSONS WHO DO RECEIVE IT ARE OFFENDED BY IT.”

It appears the Appeal Judge was therefore applying and following the Collins precedent.

Many thousands of words have been written about the correctness or otherwise of the verdict and I understand a prominent human rights QC has been engaged to advise on the prospects of success of an appeal to the High Court.

However, I have not seen many comments on the possible policy decisions behind the CPS’s original decision to prosecute after the police referred the case to them.  I understand the security staff at Robin Hood Airport made a report to the police following standard operating procedures, the police also followed standard operating procedures to investigate an alleged bomb threat and arrested Mr Chambers.  I believe the matter reached a critical turning point at this stage.

Shortly after his arrest, there was a public outcry, mostly on Twitter, about what happened.  Due to the (adverse) public interest shown, the police did what they thought was the right thing and referred the matter to the CPS.  This was the turning point – I cannot help but think that had there not been a public outcry, the police probably would have cautioned Mr Chambers, in the same way they might have cautioned somebody who threw flour and eggs at somebody’s window after being refused a Halloween treat.

I do not know exactly what then happened at the CPS, who they consulted, or who made the decision to prosecute Mr Chambers.  As a lawyer and a part-time public servant, I believe that had I been the CPS lawyer in charge, I would have laughed and said ” you must be joking, I’m not taking this to court because they would just laugh at me!”.  Evidently, someone higher up in the CPS food chain decided it was in the public interest to prosecute Mr Chambers.

So what “public interest policy” (the PIP) would this be?  I am of the view that the only public interest involved here would be to discourage people from making idle or silly threats against important infrastructure like airports, railway stations and government buildings etc in order to preserve police and security services resources so they can concentrate on real threats, made on Twitter or elsewhere. Of course it is not inconceivable that a potential bomber may wish to make a bomb threat on Twitter or other means of public communication, after all the IRA used to telephone the police to give advance warnings of real bombs.

A huge number of comments have been posted on the internet about the rights or wrongs of the verdict, they are even personal attacks on the appeal judge and generally unhelpful comments about the CPS and the jusitce legal system.  But I believe those comments and attacks may have missed the point of why the prosecution was brought in the first place.  As the title of this post suggests, “the PIP” must be the culprit. But is it right to make an example of poor Mr Chambers this way?  Might it not be better to put out a public service announcement/warning telling people not to make silly threats like Mr Chambers did?  Especially in view of the well-known fact that people who tweet or participate in online discussions often tend to make exaggerated, hyperbolic and sometimes rude statements that they would not otherwise make in a “face to face” situation?

As an aside, tens of thousands of people have retweeted Mr Chambers’ original tweet in a IamSpartacus campaign, this shows the impressive power of Twitter & Internet.  However, in the same way the original Twitter outcry may have unnecessarily pushed this case to the CPS and the subsequent chain of events, I wonder whether the tens of thousands of retweets after the appeal verdict would ultimately prove helpful to Mr Chambers.  Might they simply serve to harden the CPS’s resolve to maintain the (very) thin blue line?  I note Mr Chambers’ lawyer stated he did not start or encourage the IamSpartacus campaign.

Art Li

Advertisements

About Art Li

Briefly, I am a lawyer, keen amateur photographer, dog lover and politics junkie but not a member of any party. Full details on Biography page. Follow me on Twitter @Art_Li.
This entry was posted in Freedom of speech, Law, Politics. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to The PIP in the TwitterJokeTrial

  1. Jeanie Brock says:

    I did not see the original comment but how do you differentiate between a “joke” threat and a real one? How many times does someone misunderstand a written comment?
    I do think twitter people have not helped Mr Chambers no doubt with the best of intentions they maybe made the situation worse!
    I agree that a public warning to Mr Chambers and anyone thinking of making the same or similar comment joke or otherwise should have been made and would have been enough to discourage others!! Without the need for a court case!

    • Art Li says:

      Thanks you Jeanie. There have been some quite vile personal attacks on the judge which I found distasteful and unhelpful. If a case appears before a judge, he/she has to adjudicate upon it and the Appeal has no choice but to follow the principles laid down by the Supreme Court in Collins. If there is a further appeal, the High Court will decide whether she applied the Collins principles to this case correctly. Will be interesting.

  2. Oscar Duggan says:

    “the IRA used to telephone the police to give advance warnings of real bombs”

    Yes but they were careful enough not to give out their names and whereabouts. Terrorists don’t post threats in this manner. It should have been immediately obvious that this did not constitute a real terrorist threat and the fact that the case was pursued reveals ineptitude of the highest order. It also highlights gross negligence. Resources were wasted pursuing a frivolous line of enquiry. A simple warning or reprimand was all that was required as in this example.

    I hope those responsible for this sorry state of affairs spend the rest of their lives giving out parking tickets. Except they’d probably make a balls of that too.

  3. Oscar Duggan says:

    And incidentally. The IRA didn’t telephone the police. They telephoned Newsrooms using a system of codewords that journalists would be able to verify.

    • Art Li says:

      Thank you for your comment & of course you are correct about the IRA point. But the point of my post (which hopefully came across) that whilst it is easy to attach blame individuals on both sides, it may be that all are “victims” of the wider public interest policy of discouraging silly or jokey threats, some of which the police/security services may feel duty bound to investigate hence diverting already limited resources, and making an example of Mr Chambers as a warning to others. You could say that if it were intended as a lesson, then it has backfired because of the IamSpartacus campaign. But I believe that once the dust has settled, and if the conviction stands, far fewer people would make silly or Jokey threats about bombs. I could be wrong of course, it may simply be down to an “odd” CPS lawyer… but we will never know.

      • Oscar Duggan says:

        Would you happen to have figures for the number of ‘silly or jokey threats about bombs’ that the police have had to investigate in recent times? Also your Yorkshire Ripper analogy is flawed. As far as I am aware there was only one hoaxer who seriously diverted police resources – that of Wearside Jack. But in this instance there were real victims and a man hunt already in progress. From what crime investigation did Paul Chambers’ antics divert resources and whose fault is this? If people who are terroristically-inclined could confine their outbursts to making silly and jokey threats the world would be in a somewhat happier place. But real terrorists are a lot smarter than that. They would be of the type who brag about their exploits after and not before the event. Surprising that the authorities couldn’t see that. Unless they had a different agenda which as you rightly remark, has backfired.

      • Art Li says:

        I do believe they had an policy agenda, otherwise the initial prosecution did not make sense. Lots of arguments eslewhere about what actual harm or menace Mr Chambers’ tweet caused, but that is not the point, the prosecution did not have to show actual victims and actual harm. The argument should be WHY they initiated the prosecution, we need to “lift the argument out” of the Chambers case and into CPS/Govt policy. I do not have figures for number of silly or jokey bomb threats, but I know the security services can only deal with a small fraction of the leads going their way, hence the “policy need”(?) to stop jokes from crowding their intel feed.

  4. Thomas says:

    My main comment is why is communication law from the 1930s is being used to justify anti-terrorism reasonings for prosecution. They can not prosecute Chambers under anti-terror laws.

    And what about the #Iamsparticus campaign. If it is right to prosecute one, why not the thousands of other cases? Well, they know its a waste of money, time effort and they are barking up the wrong tree.

    Both the Airport and Police followed procedure but ended their part by saying it was nothing more than a loose comment with no threat behind it. No one suggested the comment was anything but silly and reckless.

    • Art Li says:

      Thank you for your comment. Section 127(1) of the Communications Act 2003 has its origins in a 1984 Act. Under Section 127, the prosecution has a lower burden of proof (about intention of threat maker) than bomb hoax or anti-terror laws. In other words, easier to get a conviction. As for the IamSpartacus campaign, see my earlier reply at 9.09 pm.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s