Public Communications Networks and Menacing Messages

Paul Chambers

This morning Paul Chambers won his #TwitterJokeTrial appeal and was acquitted of sending a menacing tweet under the communications act 2003. Paul had been found guilty of sending by a public electronic communication network a message of a “menacing character” contrary to s.127(1)(a) and (3) of the Communications Act 2003. The tweet in question read as follows:

“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!!”

For those who haven’t been following the case, Paul’s solicitor, David Allen Green, has written the background for New Statesman.

The High Court overturned the conviction on the basis that the tweet was not menacing, however the judge found that twitter IS a public communications network and is therefore subject to the communications act 2003. While I celebrate the decision of the court I disagree in part with their reasoning.

A key part of the original defence was that Twitter was not a public communications network, because a tweet read outside of the context of being a follower of the tweeter is content rather than a message.  I think this point was perhaps misunderstood by all sides. I would not argue that Twitter is not a public communications network, but that Twitter is both a public communications network and something more. Tweets that are not aimed at any one individual are a different usage which requires different treatment to that specified in the Communications Act 2003 and the original 1935 act that it was based on.

Paragraph 25 of the judgement says:

25. In our judgment, whether one reads the “tweet” at a time when it was read as “content” rather than “message”, at the time when it was posted it was indeed “a message” sent by an electronic communications service for the purposes of s.127(1). Accordingly “Twitter” falls within its ambit.

A tweet addressed to to one or more people with an @ mention is a message to those people. However, a tweet which is not addressed to anyone can be expected to be read by some or all followers of the person who makes the tweet. In general it would not be seen by those outside of this group unless either the tweet is “retweeted” – copied to the followers of one of the readers – or someone has searched through twitter for key words like “Robin Hood Airport” as happened in this case. The outsider had to make an effort to find it through search or by looking at the person’s profile. This is more like speaking in a group in a pub – what you say is meant for the group but others could stand nearby and listen too.

I believe that it is important that the difference in context between these types of tweets should be understood by the legal system. People frequently make jokey threats and statements, but there is a vast difference between making such a comment in the context of a group, and in aiming said comment as a message at the person or organisation who is the subject of those threats. Had Paul Chambers tweeted his statement directly to Robin Hood Airport then it would clearly have been a threat, but he did not do that. Instead he tweeted it to his followers who presumably would laugh or commiserate or both.

As to why it is important that people can joke around with ideas like bomb threats and suchlike, these tweets from Edwina Currie are a good demonstration. If Paul Chambers’ conviction had been upheld then Currie would be guilty of the same offence.

For now the important thing to note from the case is that as of this ruling, anything that you type on social networks will be subject to the Communications Act 2003 and anything considered menacing could be a criminal offence.

Further Reading

The appeal judgement in full [PDF]

Twitter joke trial: Paul Chambers wins high court challenge to conviction [Guardian]

Edwina Currie’s Comedy Connections [Storify]

Author: Latentexistence

The world is broken and I can't fix it because I am broken. I can, however, rant about it all and this is where I do that when I can get my thoughts together. Most of the time you'll find my words on Twitter rather than here though. I sometimes write for Where's The Benefit too.

3 thoughts on “Public Communications Networks and Menacing Messages”

  1. I’m waiting for your blog post about Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986…,_alarm_or_distress

    …which makes it illegal to say insulting things to people which might upset them. Prosecutions so far imply the “insult” doesn’t have to be strictly personal. You might be saying something about their religion, for example, which they find insulting.

    I bet your American readers would be fascinated, given the enshrining of free speech in their constitution. They may laughably thing we have free speech too.

    1. I have to confess that I didn’t know about that section. I have thought about the laws that we have in place for Hate Speech which I have a conflicted opinion of and honestly still don’t know where I stand.

  2. Hi Steven. I agree with you in part. I think that a tweet found through searching should be regarded as a piece of content, especially if what I’m currently writing also is. So essentially I believe that a tweet starts life as a message and ends up as content. It was only a message as far as the expected readership was concerned.

    I am content though for Twitter and its cousins to remain within the ambit of the Act. There have certainly been cases in which the use of the Act has been appropriate. I am unhappy that the judges disregarded the arguments related to blackmail and that the judgement keeps s127(1) as an offence of basic intent. This could cause trouble later. However, the judgement is a kick in the teeth to the CPS and the Crown Court. It sets thresholds that are appropriate. All in all, it is a very useful precedent.

    Carl Gardner doesn’t agree with me. He makes some good points here:

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