The UK’s High Court has overturned the case of a man whose exasperated Twitter joke left him criminalized under anti-terrorist laws, in a high-profile case that supporters say is a victory for free speech online.
Paul Chambers, 28, became the first person in the UK to be found guilty of a criminal offense for something written on Twitter back in 2010, when a court said a joke about a blowing up a local airport qualified as a public message of “menacing character”. But on Friday he learned that his latest attempt to get the conviction overturned had succeeded.
Things looked bleak for Chambers after two previous appeals had failed, but he was told by a judge in London that his conviction and fine would be overturned.
Chambers’ case — now known as the #twitterjoketrial — has become widely known, not least because it has drawn the support of many high-profile figures who say that the case is.
Their argument? That at worst, Chambers was guilty of poor taste — but nothing more.
Here’s what he said, so you can decide for yourself: after discovering that his local airport was closed due to bad weather, potentially preventing him from flying off to a romantic liaison, Chambers tweeted the following:
“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!!”
Only 600 people who followed Chambers saw the tweet, and it was not until a week later when an off-duty airport manager sifting Twitter for comments about Robin Hood came across the joke. Even though it was identified as “not credible” in terms of a threat to the airport, the manager was obliged to contact police.
They took the case forward and in May 2010, he was found guilty, fined £385 ($600) and asked to pay £600 ($940) in court costs, with the local magistrate explaining that his tweet was “of a menacing nature in the context of the times in which we live.”
That view, it seems, was not held by the High Court.
In handing down his ruling (PDF), Lord Chief Justice the Lord Judge said the tweet “was not of a menacing character.”
“There was no evidence before the Crown Court to suggest that any of the followers of the appellant’s “tweet”, or indeed anyone else who may have seen the “tweet” posted on the appellant’s time line, found it to be of a menacing character or, at a time when the threat of terrorism is real, even minimally alarming.”
The UK has notoriously tricky laws around free speech, libel and threatening behavior, particularly in relation to social networks and online publishing.
A number of people have already been prosecuted for making racist comments. After last summer’s riots in London, meanwhile, politicians even suggested that social networking services could be closed down in case of a national emergency.
But while many agree that hate speech justifies prosecution, Chambers’ case has become the focus for a campaign that suggests the country’s speech restrictions are crossing over the line.