The man who was found guilty of sending a menacing message on the internet site Twitter after he joked about blowing an airport 'sky high' has had his conviction quashed in a case which will have implications for the way online communication is dealt with by the courts.
Comedians and television presenters flocked to support Paul Chambers, 28, after he was charged in relation to the tweet, which he sent to his 600 followers in January 2010. He said he was frustrated that Robin Hood Airport was closed due to bad weather because he wanted to get to see his now fiancée.
Broadcaster Stephen Fry welcomed the 'complete vindication and victory' for Mr Chambers following today's ruling. Al Murray, who also supported Mr Chambers, wrote on Twitter: “He's won', before adding: ”Colossal relief here in court. Short and sweet.“
Mr Chambers and his supporters argued that messages sent in jest, regardless of the subjective view of the appropriateness or quality of their humour, should be taken as such and that to regard any joke about subjects such as bombings would not be a correct interpretation of the Malicious Communications Act 2003, under the provisions of which Mr Chambers was originally convicted in 2010.
They said that to interpret jokes about such subjects as serious, threatening messages would be a dangerous precedent to set. Today, Lord Chief Justice Lord Judge, sitting with Mr Justice Owen and Mr Justice Griffith Williams in the High Court, said: ”We have concluded that, on an objective assessment, the decision of the Crown Court that this 'tweet' constituted or included a message of a menacing character was not open to it.
“On this basis, the appeal against conviction must be allowed.”
The message Mr Chambers sent 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!! He said he never thought anyone would take his 'silly joke' seriously.
Speaking after the ruling, he said: ”I am relieved, vindicated - it is ridiculous it ever got this far. I want to thank everyone who has helped, including everyone on Twitter.“
His counsel, John Cooper QC, had told the judges it was obvious the tweet, which was sent by someone who did not hide his identity, was a joke.
It was certainly not sent in the context of terrorism and it was wrong for the Crown Court to make such an association.
He said: ”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'.“
The judges noted there was no evidence before the Crown Court to suggest any of the followers of the ”tweet“, or anyone else who may have seen it posted on Mr Chambers' timeline, found it to be of a menacing character or, at a time when the threat of terrorism was real, even minimally alarming.
In fact, nothing was done about it by anyone until five days later when the duty manager responsible for security at the airport, while off duty at home, found it.
Robert Smith QC, for the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), had said that, on any view, Mr Chambers, of Corby, Northamptonshire, a man of previous good character who worked as an administration and finance supervisor, was ”very foolish“ to do what he did.
He said the question was, by whose standards and by what members of society would such a message be viewed as a joke, given that those who had access to it would probably not have any knowledge of the circumstances which led to it being sent?
Vanessa Barnett, partner at Charles Russell LLP, commented: ”Paul's successful challenge of his conviction is good news indeed for all users of Twitter. The courts had gone overboard in terms of their treatment of him. But we should not see this as an invitation to say anything we like on Twitter - things that are crimes will still be crimes and many things in poor taste are still, rightly, illegal. It's Twitter, remember, not the pub.“
* On Saturday morning Chambers tweeted: "It's kinda nice waking up and not being a criminal. A man could get used to this."
Tweet Victory: The Legal Saga
January 2010 – Paul Chambers posts tweet joking about blowing up an airport after it closed due to bad weather. He wanted to board a plane to visit his girlfriend in Belfast.
May 2010 – He is convicted of sending “a message of a menacing character” and fined £385 and ordered to pay £600 in costs.
November 2010 – Crown Court dismisses his appeal. An “I’m Spartacus” protest in support of Chambers erupts online.
May 2012 – Announced that appeal must be heard again after High Court judges fail to reach a decision.
July 2012 – Conviction is quashed.