The leading lights of Britain’s Twitterati showed up today to support the right of a man to joke about blowing up an airport in a court case with potential implications for users of social networks.
Paul Chambers sat on the public benches at the High Court today flanked by the broadcaster Stephen Fry and the comedian Al Murray as he challenged a conviction over a tweet sent to 600 followers after learning that plans to visit his new girlfriend were threatened by snow.
The accountant was fined £385 in May 2010 and given a criminal conviction for what he said was a tweet in a moment of frustration when bad weather appeared likely to scupper his flight from an airport in South Yorkshire to Northern Ireland. It read: "Crap! Robin Hood Airport is closed. You've got a week and a bit to get your shit together, otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!"
The case over the 154-character tweet has rumbled on for two-and-a-half years. His legal team today asked the most senior judge in England and Wales, Lord Judge, to quash the conviction saying that current legislation was too out-of-date to deal with the explosion of Twitter and other social networking sites. Twitter was invented three years after the Communications Act came into force under which Mr Chambers was prosecuted.
Mr Chambers, who attended the hearing with Sarah Tonner – now his fiancée and who plan to marry after the conclusion of legal hearings – has already lost one appeal against his conviction after a judge ruled that the tweet was clearly “menacing”. His latest challenge came after his celebrity backers helped to raise thousands of pounds to pay for his legal bills.
John Cooper, QC, for Mr Chambers said it was wrong to read any terrorist connotation into the message. “If that be the case, and I don't mean to be flippant, John Betjeman would be concerned when he said 'Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough', or Shakespeare when he said 'Let's kill all the lawyers’," Mr Cooper said.
He added that the tweet was clearly a joke. “It was an expression of humour, it might be the humour of an acquired taste, but not even a threat.”
Prosecutors said that the tweet was posted at a time when the potential threat to airport security was high and the public had a right to feel they could travel safely. Robert Smith QC, for the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), said that after the tweet was sent, Mr Chambers sent messages to his girlfriend referring to terrorism.
Mr Murray – who tweeted throughout the proceedings to his 167,000 followers – said the conviction of Mr Chambers was a “monstrous injustice” and defended the right of comedians to tell jokes that few found funny.
“Reform of the House of Lords, so what?” he said. “This is 10 million people affected directly. This is hard law dealing with how people talk to each other.
“I don’t like the law looking absurd. I like to see justice working properly and doesn’t land people in the s*** for saying something flippant.”
Mr Fry tweeted: “God I hope common sense and natural justice prevail.”
Outside court, Mr Chambers’ solicitor David Allen Green said that he hoped the case would lead to guidance to prosecutors about the threshold for future prosecutions. The judges’ ruling will be given at a later date.