Twitter joke ruling hailed as victory for free speech

By Owen Bowcott

A high court ruling overturning the conviction of Paul Chambers, who was found guilty of sending a menacing tweet, has been greeted as a victory for freedom of speech.

The decision, handed down by the lord chief justice, Lord Judge, represents a significant shift in the legal system’s treatment of social media sites, signalling that comments should be read in the context of online communications.

Chambers, 27, a trainee accountant, said he was “relieved and vindicated”, adding: “It’s ridiculous that it ever got so far.” He had always maintained that he did not believe anyone would take his “silly joke” seriously.

In January 2010, he had tweeted in frustration when he discovered that his local airport in Doncaster was closed by snow. Eager to see his girlfriend, he sent out a tweet declaring: “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!!”

Chambers was arrested by South Yorkshire police and convicted by district judge Jonathan Bennett sitting at Doncaster magistrates court and fined £1,000. He was prosecuted under section 127(1) of the Communications Act 2003, which prohibits sending “by means of a public electronic communications network a message or other matter that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character”.

In November 2010, crown court judge Jacqueline Davies, sitting with two magistrates, dismissed his appeal, saying that the electronic communication was “clearly menacing” and that airport staff were sufficiently concerned to report it.

The lord chief justice, sitting with Mr Justice Owen and Mr Justice Griffith Williams, said airport staff did not believe the message was a credible threat. Allowing Chambers’ appeal, they commented: “We have concluded that, on 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. On this basis, the appeal against conviction must be allowed.”

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