On Thursday, comedy writer Graham Lineham wrote an excellent piece for Index on Censorship:
“The Twitter joke trial is the clearest indication yet that the world is divided into two sorts of people at the moment. The people who ‘get it’, and the people who don’t.”
Sadly, those who don’t get it include the Police, the Crown Prosecution Service, the judiciary, and Yasmin Alibhai-Brown.
For a single tweet, Paul Chambers now has a criminal record, is facing a £1,000 fine, plus the costs from his original conviction and after Thursday another £2,600 worth of costs. At 27, he is branded a criminal and has lost his job.
There’s no doubt that what Chambers 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!”
… was stupid. But the response has been absolutely disproportionate.
Originally, Chambers was arrested because the police felt compelled to investigate his “bomb threat”. After his arrest, officers felt that the threat from the tweet had not been credible.
Yet, the CPS subsequently brought charges against Chambers, not for the original arrest charge, which would have needed a high threshold for evidence of a viable bomb plot, but instead he became the first person in the UK to be charged for a tweet under section 127 of the Communications Act of 2003.
As Jack of Kent points out, the CPS regard section 127 as a “strict liability” offence, which in practice means they don’t need to provide any evidence whatsoever of intention before they prosecute. This is significant. No one would suggest that Paul Chambers intended to “menace” people from his tweet (or be grossly offensive, indecent, or obscene).
But for the CPS this is irrelevant. The tweet alone was enough for them to launch their prosecution. Just placing the tweet on a website is enough for them to prosecute.
Even free speech fundamentalists agree with US Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’s point that free speech would not protect an idiot who shouted fire in a crowded theatre and caused a panic. Though as one of the most ardent free speech campaigners alive today, Aryeh Neier, points out in Index on Censorship magazine (“Radio Redux”):
“… the stress on circumstances is crucial. If the theatre were empty at the time, there would be no panic and, therefore, in Holmes’s judgement, no basis for punishing the false shout of fire.”
English law now seems to suggest that merely to shout fire is enough to initiate a prosecution – which is utterly chilling for free expression.
It isn’t just the CPS who don’t get it. Judge Jacqueline Davies said Chambers was an “an unimpressive witness”, adding:
“… the words in the message speak for themselves and they were sent at a time when the security threat to this country was substantial… Any ordinary person would have been menaced by the tweet.”
This isn’t a one-off. On Thursday, Tory councillor Gareth Compton was arrested for a “menacing tweet”. Idiotically he tweeted:
“Can someone please stone Yasmin Alibhai-Brown to death? I shan’t tell Amnesty if you don’t. It would be a blessing, really.”
Now, I find this offensive and imagine most people do – but there is a huge difference between stupidity and criminal behaviour. With the Chambers case setting the case law, it is likely he could face a huge fine. The Conservatives have suspended him from the party. Again, someone faces a criminal record (and the end of their career: Compton is a barrister) for an idiotic comment on twitter.
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is well remunerated to exercise her opinions every week in her Independent column. Her free expression keeps a roof over her head, so you’d expect her to be forgiving when others exercise their rights. Sadly not. Whilst she didn’t call the police about Cllr Compton, she says she would have done so, and has backed up the CPS position that these tweets are “menacing”.
And Labour’s position? Labour backbenches found themselves suddenly exercised by the ghost of Thomas Paine this week as they defended the fundamental right of Phil Woolas to lie on election material / generally be idiotic (see my thoughts on this here), but sadly this free expression zeal doesn’t seem to extend to other political parties.
Steve McCabe, Labour MP for Birmingham Selly Oak, said:
“It is staggering that the Conservative Party allowed Gareth Compton to represent the people of Birmingham in the first place. His despicable comments on Twitter show that he has no place in public office.”
Maybe – I certainly think Cllr Compton’s comments show a lack of judgement – but, what no Labour MP has tackled is whether they think Cllr Compton should be prosecuted. That’s at the heart of this debate, not mere offence, but whether people should be prosecuted for a criminal offence over a single tweet.