Facebook and Twitter users are not above the law: Judge warns social media users could face jail after ruling on pictures claiming to show James Bulger killers

 

Facebook and Twitter users will face lengthy jail sentences if they defy court orders banning publication of information, one of the country's most senior judges has ruled.

In a judgement that will have major ramifications for policing the internet, Sir John Thomas warned social media users that they were not above laws that govern conventional press.

His comments came after a test case brought by the Attorney General against two men who were part of a “concerted campaign” to publish images purporting to be of James Bulger's killers on the 20th anniversary of the toddler's death.

Dean Liddle and Neil Harkins narrowly escaped nine months in jail when Sir John, president of the Queen's Bench Division, and Mr Justice Tugendhat agreed to suspend the sentences for 15 months.

But Sir John said: “For the future, if there is publication on the internet or through social media, then we consider there will be little prospect of such a person, if the publication occurs after the date of this judgement, escaping a very substantial custodial sentence without there being a prospect of suspension. We hope that message will be clear.”

Attorney General Dominic Grieve, who is said to be considering proceedings against other offenders, has previously declared his intent to challenge the misconception that “so long as something is published in cyberspace there is no need to respect the laws of contempt or libel”.

“An internet posting takes seconds but can have major consequences,” he said. “It is irrelevant whether the postings in this case were of who they claimed to be. The order is meant not only to protect Venables and Thompson but also those members of the public who have been incorrectly identified as being either of them.”

The court heard that tens of thousands of people – 24,000 on Facebook alone – shared images said to be of adult Jon Venables and Robert Thompson in February this year. The pair, who were ten when their murder of two-year-old Bulger caused widespread revulsion in the country, were given new identities upon their release from custody and a ban was imposed on publishing anything that would identify them or their whereabouts. Yet the injunction was ignored by thousands on the internet.

Among them were Mr Harkins, 35, who reposted images on his Facebook site, and Mr Liddle, 28, who put them on his Opinionated Dad Twitter feed.

Mr Grieve decided to take a High Court case, applying for an order of committal against the pair, as a matter of public interest and because they had both shown from their posts that they were fully aware of the ban.

On his Facebook page with 141 friends, Mr Harkins, from Bridlington, wrote: “Intresting (sic) that this photo isn't allowed to be shown and there's an investigation on how it got out.”

Mr Liddle, a graphic designer from Sunderland who was said to be a key carer for his deaf son, had removed the photographs within an hour after being told that they were of the wrong people. But, upon being served with court papers from the Treasury Solicitor's Department after a member of the Attorney General's office spotted his original tweets, declared to his 915 followers: “Love them to take me to court. I'll tell them exactly why I posted pictures of sick child killers.”

Both men looked considerably less defiant as they were brought before the High Court, which heard that they had removed the images immediately, apologised for their behaviour and admitted being in breach of the injunction as soon as they were advised by solicitors. Neither, their barristers said, had realised the severity of their act of the potential for a two-year jail sentence.

Mr Harkins, the main carer for his three children while his wife worked at a pharmaceuticals store, accepted that he had been “grossly foolish”. Like Liddle, he said he had seen the images posted elsewhere hundreds of times but the judges said that was no excuse.

Sir John said that both men, in posting the pictures, knew of the danger of “serious physical harm or death” faced by Venables and Thompson, as well, as those who were mistaken for the two killers.

“Noone should contemplate taking the law into their own hands by encouraging the punishment of offenders by others,” the judge said. “Vigilantism has no place in a civil society and it is for the purposes of deterring such conduct that we must have particular regard.”

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
love + sex A new study has revealed the average size - but does that leave men outside the 'normal' range being thought of as 'abnormal'?
Voices
The Palace of Westminster is falling down, according to John Bercow
voices..says Matthew Norman
Sport
Steve Bruce and Gus Poyet clash
football
Arts and Entertainment
Jake and Dinos Chapman were motivated by revenge to make 'Bring me the Head of Franco Toselli! '
arts + ents Shapero Modern Gallery to show explicit Chapman Brothers film
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
Kurt Cobain performing for 'MTV Unplugged' in New York, shortly before his death
music Brett Morgen's 'Cobain: Montage of Heck' debunks many of the myths surrounding the enigmatic singer
Sport
Brendan Rodgers
football The Liverpool manager will be the first option after Pep Guardiola
Life and Style
life
Sport
Christian Benteke of Aston Villa celebrates scoring the winner for Aston Villa
football
Arts and Entertainment
Myanna Buring, Julian Rhind-Tutt and Russell Tovey in 'Banished'
TV Jimmy McGovern tackles 18th-century crime and punishment
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Whitehouse as Herbert
arts + ents
News
Bill O'Reilly attends The Hollywood Reporter 35 Most Powerful People In Media Celebration at The Four Seasons Restaurant on April 16, 2014 in New York City
media It is the second time he and the channel have clarified statements
News
people
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn