After a protracted legal fight, a tweet sent in the heat of the moment by Doncaster Businessman Paul Chambers has finally led to a decision to overturn his original May 2010 conviction by the highest Judge in England & Wales, Lord Chief Justice Judge.
Mr Chambers sent a tweet during the heavy snow on January 2012 that head led to the closure of Doncaster Airport. It read: “C***! Robin Hood Airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your s*** together, otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!” Five days after the tweet had been posted, it was spotted on Twitter by an employee at Doncaster Airport who reported it. Chambers, 28, was fined £385 and ordered to pay £600 costs at Doncaster Magistrates’ Court in May 2010 after being convicted of sending “a message of a menacing character”, contrary to provisions of the 2003 Communications Act. Chambers had appealed the conviction, but it was upheld in the crown Court in November 2010, with Crown Court Judge Jacqueline Davies finding that the tweet was ”clearly menacing” and that airport staff were sufficiently concerned to report it. However was the message really an indication of potential terrorist activity and not, as Mr Chambers continued to state, just a joke in the heat of the moment?
Chambers subsequently received support from comedians Stephen Fry and Al Murray, the “Pub Landlord” who were concerned about the freedom of speech implications that the conviction had created. If a message like that from Mr Chambers, which was clearly intended to be a joke, were taken literally, it could limit the ability of any user to express themselves freely on Twitter. It could also have implications in the physical world. If Mr Chambers had made his remark in a bar instead of on Twitter, could he have also received a conviction?
The Court may have originally misunderstood how Twitter itself operated, with the tweet being occasionally referred to as a “message”. However a tweet is not a direct message. It is the equivalent to taking a megaphone to the top of a tall building in a city centre and shouting a statement as loudly as possible, with no clear indication as to precisely who has heard it. In this instance, the message was not noticed by Mr Chambers 600 followers at the time it was sent, but was only identified subsequently by the Airport employee who was most likely searching Twitter in order to identify tweets about the airport.
When the Appeal hearing took place, Lord Chief Justice Judge heard the evidence from Mr Chambers Counsel, John Cooper QC, and listened to the case to suggest that there were implications for the freedom of speech and freedom of expression surrounding this conviction. In making this decision it appears that he was indeed persuaded as to these arguments and to the implications that would have led from the original conviction being upheld.
Today’s decision is an important one from the perspective of the evolving jurisprudence surrounding the use of Social Media networks which are ultimately governed by the EU Data Protection Regulations 1995 which are now almost twenty years old. The proposed 2012 regulations could have a significant impact on the use of social media. In the meantime, decisions like this are significant in understanding what ultimately the best practice is in using social media sites like Twitter.