When heavy snowfall threatened to scupper Paul Chambers's travel plans, he decided to vent his frustrations on Twitter by tapping out a comment to amuse his friends. "Robin Hood airport is closed," he wrote. "You've got a week and a bit to get your shit together, otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!!"
Unfortunately for Mr Chambers, the police didn't see the funny side. A week after posting the message on the social networking site, he was arrested under the Terrorism Act and questioned for almost seven hours by detectives who interpreted his post as a security threat. After he was released on bail, he was suspended from work pending an internal investigation, and has, he says, been banned from the Doncaster airport for life. "I would never have thought, in a thousand years, that any of this would have happened because of a Twitter post," said Mr Chambers, 26. "I'm the most mild-mannered guy you could imagine."
While it has happened in the United States, Mr Chambers is thought to be the first person in the United Kingdom to be arrested for comments posted on Twitter. His ordeal began on 6 January when, after hearing that extreme weather had forced the closure of Robin Hood airport, he posted the ill-advised message – frustrated because he was to fly to Ireland from that airport on Friday 15 January.
On 13 January, after apparently receiving a tip-off from a member of the public, police arrived at Mr Chambers' office. "My first thought upon hearing it was the police was that perhaps a member of my family had been in an accident," he said. "Then they said I was being arrested under the Terrorism Act and produced a piece of paper. It was a print-out of my Twitter page. That was when it dawned on me."
Mr Chambers said the police seemed unable to comprehend the intended humour in his online comment. "I had to explain Twitter to them in its entirety because they'd never heard of it," he said. "Then they asked all about my home life, and how work was going, and other personal things. The lead investigator kept asking, 'Do you understand why this is happening?' and saying, 'It is the world we live in'."
After the interview, Mr Hale was returned to a cell for an hour then released. But, he said, not before the police deleted the post from his Twitter page. He has been bailed until 11 February, when he will be told whether or not he will be charged with conspiring to create a bomb hoax. In the interim, detectives have confiscated his iPhone, laptop and home computer.
The civil libertarian Tessa Mayes, an expert on privacy law and free speech issues, said: "Making jokes about terrorism is considered a thought crime, mistakenly seen as a real act of harm or intention to commit harm.
"The police's actions seem laughable and suggest desperation in their efforts to combat terrorism, yet they have serious repercussions for all of us. In a democracy, our right to say what we please to each other should be non-negotiable, even on Twitter."
A spokesman for South Yorkshire Police confirmed the arrest and said: "A male was arrested on 13 January for comments made on a social networking site. He has been bailed pending further investigations."
Nobody from Robin Hood airport could be contacted last night.
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