UK: Absurd conviction for Twitter joke overturned
This week the UK‘s high court overturned the conviction of Paul Chambers saying that his Tweet in 2010, in which he jokingly threatened to blow up Nottingham's airport, was not a “menacing communication”. Article 19 intervened in the case arguing that criminalising jokes online is a violation of the right to freedom of expression.
Sunday, 29 July 2012, by HRH London, based on Article 19 and Index on Censorship press releases.
London based non-governmental free speech organisations Article 19 and Index on Censorship welcome court’s ruling and say this is an important precedent for freedom of expression online.
Step in the right direction
“Today’s judgment is an advance in the justice system’s handling of free speech on the web,” said Kirsty Hughes, Chief Executive of Index on Censorship
“As more and more of us use social media, it is important that the law understands how people communicate online. This ruling is a step in the right direction”, she added.
Agnes Callamard, Executive Director of Article19, told that this is a victory for common sense and freedom of expression online.
“The right to express ideas and information includes the right to make jokes, even if others may find them unfunny, distasteful or even shocking. The lower courts exaggerated the Tweet and made it into a threat, when it was clearly a joke made in jest. We welcome the Divisional Court's ruling for the protection it gives to online speech and the freedom to tweet in particular”, she added.
Judge: tweet was meant as a joke
Handing down the Divisional Court judgment, the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge, said that the context of the tweet made clear that it was meant as a joke:
“[…] it was not sent to anyone at the airport or anyone responsible for airport security, or indeed any form of public security. The grievance addressed by the message is that the airport is closed when the writer wants it to be open. The language and punctuation are inconsistent with the writer intending it to be or to be taken as a serious warning…”
The Lord Judge also emphasized that it is unusual for a threat of a terrorist nature to invite the person making it to ready identified, as this message did.
The Divisional Court held that the Crown Court erred in its assessment that Chambers' tweet was "menacing" because it had placed "disproportionate weight" on the possibility of how “some” people might react, Article 19 reports.
The Divisional Court concluded that "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".
The 'hero' of ‘Twitter-Joke Trial’ charged
The story – commonly known in the UK as the ‘Twitter-Joke Trial’ – began in January 2010. At the time that Paul Chambers, 28, below, tweeted, he had approximately 600 followers on Twitter and planned to fly from Robin Hood airport in Liverpool to Belfast to visit another Twitter user – his now-fiancée Sarah Tonner.
Chambers saw a news story about the closure of the airport due to heavy snowfall and posted a tweet: “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!!”
Airport security had graded any ‘threat’ to the airport from the tweet as ‘non-credible’. The airport took no further action but passed the tweet to South Yorkshire police who arrested Mr Chambers at his work-place and he was searched, interviewed and eventually charged and convicted.
Chambers was fined £385 and ordered to pay costs of £600 for joking on Twitter by Doncaster Magistrates Court in May 2010. His conviction was subsequently confirmed by the Doncaster Crown Court. On 27 July 2012 Chamber’s appeal was allowed.
Chambers appealed his conviction on the basis that the tweet was self-evidently a joke and that he did not intend to threaten anyone or anything by posting the message on Twitter.
Article 19 made a submission in the appeal
Article 19 made a written submission in the appeal concerning the right to freedom of expression in the context of jokes and mock threats. In its submission, the organisation stated that the freedom to express ideas and information, opinions and beliefs includes the freedom to do so using humour.
According to them, it necessarily includes the freedom to joke, to make light of serious things, to jest, to exaggerate, to trivialise, to satirise, parody and mock; and it does not matter that some people may believe a person's attempt at humour is unsuccessful.
The Lord Chief Justice agreed, stating that, “Satirical, or iconoclastic, or rude comment, the expression of unpopular or unfashionable opinion about serious or trivial matters, banter or humour, even if distasteful to some or painful to those subjected to it should and no doubt will continue at their customary level, quite undiminished by this legislation”.
Victory for common sense
Comic Al Murray, who has been a vocal supporter of Chambers, was part of a large supportive crowd at the handing down of the judgment. Conservative MP Louise Mensch and science writer and free speech campaigner Simon Singh were also in attendance.
Murray told Index on Censorship he though the judgment was “a victory for common sense and proportion”.
“If terrorism is such a threat, then surely it demands being dealt with coolly, rather than clamping down on mere mentions of it in a joke”, said Murray. “Paul’s tweet was not a credible threat, and the courts’ reaction up until now has made them look incredible”.
The judgment is available here.
HRH London, based on Article 19 and Index on Censorship press releases.