A UK Lord Chief Justice has decreed that bad taste on Twitter isn’t necessarily illegal.
Paul Chambers, the man who Tweeted about blowing up Robin Hood Airport in Sheffield and was convicted of sending menacing threats under Communications Act legislation, has had his appeal against conviction granted by the UK High Court. Lord Chief Justice Judge and his fellow Justices agreed that the 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!!” – could not, on its face, constitute a credible threat. Chambers, who lost two jobs and was heavily fined as a result of his previous convictions, said he was “relieved and vindicated” by the result.
It all turned on Chambers’ state of mind when he posted the Tweet. “We would merely emphasise that … the mental element of the offence is directed exclusively to the state of the mind of the offender,” said the Lord Chief Justice in his formal judgment, “and that if he may have intended the message as a joke, even if a poor joke in bad taste, it is unlikely that the mens rea required before conviction for the offence of sending a message of a menacing character will be established.” In other words, Chambers’ joke was just a joke, so there was no intent and therefore no crime.
Possibly the most depressing thing about the Chambers case is the revelation that nobody – except for the Crown Prosecution Service – believed it ought to have come to trial. Airport staff thought it wasn’t worth bothering with, and had no effect on operations. The police who arrested Chambers said, in their official record, that “there is no evidence at this stage to suggest that there is anything other than a foolish comment posted on Twitter as a joke for only his close friends to see.” Yet they all passed the matter up the chain of command and it ultimately ended up in front of the CPS, which thought the mens rea could be proved. It’s galling to think that one of the messages of the Chambers trial is perhaps some things shouldn’t be recorded or reported, for fear of escalating a minor issue into something much more serious.
In a statement following the trial, Chambers’ solicitor, David Allen Green, said “this shameful prosecution should never have been brought. For two and a half years the CPS have adopted a ridiculous position. There are very serious questions for the director of public prosecutions to answer in this case. We welcome this very clear judgment that sets out a high threshold for what constitutes a menacing character.”