In the latest decision by the English courts concerning the social networking and micro blogging website Twitter, Paul Chambers, a former trainee accountant, has been acquitted of sending a “menacing message”. As a result of a message Chambers posted on Twitter he was arrested at his workplace, lost his job, and for more than two years endured the threat of criminal sanctions and terrorist association hanging over him.
Mr Chambers had been planning on flying from Robin Hood Airport in Doncaster to Belfast in January 2010 to see his girlfriend. After hearing that the airport had closed due to bad weather, Chambers tweeted “Crap! Robin Hood Airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I am blowing the airport sky high!!”.
Like most tweets, Chambers’ message was in theory available for any one of Twitter’s millions of users to view, although he only had 600 followers. Some days later the tweet came to the attention of airport members of staff who, despite not believing the message to be a credible threat, alerted the police purely as a matter of standard practice. The police took the message very seriously however and Chambers was arrested on suspicion of a bomb hoax and subsequently convicted of sending a “public message” of a “menacing character” (such as would create “fear” or “apprehension”) contrary to the Communications Act 2003.
After a lengthy legal process the conviction was overturned on 27 July of this year on appeal. Chambers’ legal team deployed several arguments in their bid to have the conviction overturned, the preliminary (and more academic) one being that the tweet was not in fact “public” since Chambers had only intended for it to be viewed by his 600 or so “followers” (roughly equivalent to “friends” on Facebook) rather than the wider public. While the court ruled that the tweet was public, crucially it agreed with Chambers’ other argument that, when looked at in context, the message would not be viewed as menacing by most reasonable people and that it was not sufficient, as the lower court had ruled, that the communication merely might create fear or apprehension in any one individual. The court took common sense factors into consideration when examining the context of the message, including that the tweet was a conversation piece designed to draw attention to Mr Chambers’ predicament; it was not directed towards the airport’s staff; the tweet’s language and punctuation was not consistent with it being a serious warning to the airport; it is unlikely that a serious terrorist threat would be advertised by the would-be perpetrator to several hundred people in ample time for the plot to be foiled. These contextual findings were reinforced by the fact that no one at the airport considered the threat credible at the time.
The decision has been hailed as a victory for common sense, but again highlights the challenges faced by the Courts applying existing laws to new technologies. In this case, the law in question was originally enacted to criminalise the sending of “poison pen letters” and clearly did not anticipate social media which enables short irreverent messages to be disseminated, at the push of a button, to the world at large.