Joan Smith: Judges ought to get even bad jokes on Twitter

Share

I was once having a drink with a Turkish author at the Edinburgh book festival when he announced that he was worried about freedom of expression in the UK. I assumed he'd heard about some crackpot piece of proposed legislation, but he insisted he'd read about a famous British novelist actually being sent to prison. Should he make a public protest? It took me a minute to realise it was a wind-up, and my friend knew perfectly well that Jeffrey Archer hadn't been jailed for anything he'd written.

We don't do things like that in this country, do we? But we do have a worrying tendency to prosecute people for making bad jokes or offensive remarks on social-networking sites.

On Friday, good sense finally prevailed in the case of Paul Chambers, who has been trying to clear his name for more than two years after being found guilty of sending a menacing message on Twitter. Chambers was fined £1,000 for what he admits was a "silly joke" and it has taken three court hearings to overturn his conviction.

I can't see how anyone could read the Chambers tweet as anything other than an outburst of frustration. He was infuriated when his local airport was closed due to snow and tweeted: "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!!"

It would be unusual for a genuine terrorist to give quite so much notice, or to use his real name, so I can imagine his shock when four cops visited his office in Doncaster and arrested him. They turned up a week after he posted the message, which was hardly a swift response if Chambers really posed a threat to national security.

The key point in this case is intention. Many people use Twitter in the same way as they talk to friends in a pub or bar, exaggerating for effect. When someone exclaims "I could have killed him!", the audience doesn't think for one moment that they mean it. Messages on social-networking sites have more in common with speech than books or articles, which are the product of time and effort. Alarmingly, the Crown Prosecution Service seems to have trouble making this distinction, defending the decision to prosecute Chambers even after his conviction was quashed at the High Court.

I wish people wouldn't rush on to sites and abuse strangers, politicians and random celebrities. I loathe the misogyny and racism on Twitter, and I have no sympathy with people who break the law by naming rape victims.

But if the 2003 Communications Act were to be strictly applied, the courts would be clogged up with people who've posted material that's "grossly offensive" or "of an indecent, obscene or menacing character".

Clearly the law is struggling with developments in technology, which give wide circulation to what amounts to no more than an emotional spasm. But using it in such trivial cases is a serious threat to free expression.

Joan Smith is Political Blonde: www.politicalblonde.com; twitter.com/@polblonde

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Manager - SAS - Data Warehouse - Banking

£350 - £365 per day: Orgtel: Manager, SAS, Data Warehouse, Banking, Bristol - ...

Web Analyst – Permanent – West Sussex – Up to £43k

£35000 - £43000 Per Annum plus excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions...

Internal Project Manager - Business Analyst, Financial Services

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Harrington Starr: One of the best known and most pr...

SQL DBA/Developer

£500 per day: Harrington Starr: SQL DBA/Developer
 SQL, C#, VBA, Linux, SQL Se...

Day In a Page

Read Next
There are now half a million self-service checkouts in operation across Britain's leading supermarkets  

What's the point of paying for service if you then have to do the work yourself?

Jane Merrick
 

Our limited generosity is being wasted on the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge

Tom Peck
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home
Lauded therapist Harley Mille still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Lauded therapist still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Australian Harley Miller is as frustrated by court delays as she is with the idiosyncrasies of immigration law
Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world. But could his predictions of war do the same?

Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world...

But could his predictions of war do the same?
Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs: 'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs
Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities, but why?

Young at hort

Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities. But why are so many people are swapping sweaty clubs for leafy shrubs?
Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award: 'making a quip as funny as possible is an art'

Beyond a joke

Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

Sadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire: The joy of camping in a wetland nature reserve and sleeping under the stars

A wild night out

Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire offers a rare chance to camp in a wetland nature reserve
Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition: It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans

Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition

It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans
Besiktas vs Arsenal: Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie

Besiktas vs Arsenal

Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie
Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

As the Northern Irishman prepares for the Barclays, he finds time to appear on TV in the States, where he’s now such a global superstar that he needs no introduction
Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to Formula One

Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to F1

The 16-year-old will become the sport’s youngest-ever driver when he makes his debut for Toro Rosso next season
Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

But belated attempts to unite will be to no avail if the Sunni caliphate remains strong in Syria, says Patrick Cockburn
Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I would end up killing myself in jail'

Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I'd end up killing myself in jail'

Following last week's report on prison suicides, the former inmate asks how much progress we have made in the 50 years since the abolition of capital punishment