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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Friday, July 27, 2012

Twitter joke appeal succeeds

In a small victory for freedom of speech, a British appeal court has overturned the conviction of Paul Chambers, who had been found guilty back in May 2010 of sending a "public electronic message" that was of a "menacing character".

The offending message was a joke which expressed annoyance that an airport was closed because of snow - Chambers was heading there to meet a friend (now his fiance): "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!!"

So, there's one step back from the culture of surveillance, fear, and creeping authoritarianism that we often seem to be heading towards. Good for the court for overturning this ridiculous conviction, and shame on the prosecuting authorities for ever pursuing the case.

9 comments:

latsot said...

It took years and enormous effort, including various experts working for free before this decision was reached. It was the right decision, but it seems to say a lot about our legal system that it came to this in the first place and was so difficult to resolve.

Tony Lloyd said...

Agreed latsot.

Let's remember that it had to get to the level of The Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales before a decision, that to most was screamingly obvious, was made.

Because of this case, I don't feel at all confident in the administration justice in any of the levels below the very top.

Greg Camp said...

I'm going to be somewhat contrary here. The message sounds like the kind of thing that would warrant a visit from a few friendly representatives of one government agency or another. An arrest, trial, and conviction is probably more than was needed. But watching reruns of Perry Mason as a child, I learned that if you say you want to kill someone, you're going to be the schlub in the defendant's chair.

I'm saying this with the understanding that the remark had no political, philosophical, or otherwise intent. This wasn't a crackdown on free speech. What we have here is an overreaction to a stupid joke. Both sides need to learn a lesson.

ColinGavaghan said...

'But watching reruns of Perry Mason as a child, I learned that if you say you want to kill someone, you're going to be the schlub in the defendant's chair.'

If the someone then gets killed, you have identified yourself as a suspect. That's rather different from saying that you have already committed a criminal act merely be expressing a wish.

The offence with which Paul Chambers was charged involved sending a message of a 'menacing character.' It looks as though (I haven't yet read the case) the trial judge interpreted that clause in the light of the response the message elicited: the fact that the airport staff called the police shows that they were, in fact, menaced.

The Court of Appeal, in contrast, seem to have taken 'an objective assessment', which presumably involves considering how a reasonable person would have responded.

This is somewhat redolent of the discussion about harassment policies, where we seem to have agreed that 'unwanted sexual attention' should be interpreted as referring to foreseeably unwanted attention, rather than relying on how the object of the attention actually responds.

Greg Camp said...

Colin Gavaghan, you're right that it's not a one-to-one relationship. This sounds like a thoughtless young man who opened his mouth and inserted his foot. The reaction was excessive, but I hope that he's learned to be more circumspect about what he says.

ColinGavaghan said...

@Greg: if that really, honestly is the most important lesson anyone learns from this debacle, then I fear for my homeland.

Greg Camp said...

Colin Gavaghan, I don't mean political speech or religious, philosophical, literary, or similar speech. I mean the kind of popping off at the mouth that this fellow did. There's a difference between declaring one's frustrations with or dislike for X and expressing a desire to harm X.

ColinGavaghan said...

Greg, expressing one's desire to harm X is not, and should not be, a criminal offence. Expressing one's intention so to do is potentially a different matter, though only if it is perceived as being threatening or menacing. (Sorry to be pedantic, I've just recently written a chapter on this - I think very important - distinction.)

What Chambers said could, if taken seriously, have been perceived as 'menacing', rather than merely expressing a desire, but only if a reasonable person would have taken his comments seriously. It's in this regard that I would hope prosecutors would exercise sensible discretion. English literature and culture is replete with famous comments that, if taken seriously, could constitute 'menacing' conduct.

On a related note, Ian Cram (English law professor) has an interesting piece in The Guardian, suggesting that the law in this area is not sufficiently attuned to the realities of social networking: http://www.guardian.co.uk/law/2012/jul/27/twitter-joke-trial-judges-internet

Greg Camp said...

Colin, you make an excellent point. As I said, a visit from a friendly police officer would have been a better approach. One of our famous loudmouths, Ted Nugent, recently had a chat with agents of the Secret Service, thanks to his comments about what would happen if Obama is reelected. Nugent didn't get arrested, though, and the matter has been concluded with no further action taken. On the other hand, police in Maryland arrested a fellow who make comments about intending to shoot up his workplace, since he appears to have meant it.

I am pleased about the outcome in the Chambers case. Before the last decade's series of terrorist attacks, his comment likely would have gone unnoticed. We're more sensitive now to these things. But again, a telephone call or a polite visit should be enough to clear up the intent if that's seen as necessary. By no means do I think that Chambers should have been punished for what he wrote.