About Me

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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Be careful what you tweet

Over at Jack of Kent's blog you can follow the latest outrage against freedom of speech in the UK, where Mr Paul Chambers was convicted under section 127 of the Communications Act 2003. This provides, inter alia:

A person is guilty of an offence if he— .
sends by means of a public electronic communications network a message or other matter that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character; or
causes any such message or matter to be so sent.

This is a shockingly illiberal law, but the way it's been applied in this case is even more so. Chambers was convicted for sending a "menacing" message ... in the form of the following intemperate, ill-advised, but surely jocular 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!

The trial judge held that

I am therefore satisfied, so that I am sure, that the defendant sent the message via “Twitter” and it was of a menacing nature in the context of the times in which we live. Furthermore I am satisfied the defendant was, at the very least, aware that this was of a menacing nature and I find him guilty of the offence.

The case is now being appealed. Hopefully this "disgraceful and illiberal judgment" (per Jack of Kent) will be overturned.


Unknown said...


Seriously, where was Mill born again?

ronny said...

That's what happens when you don't put a colon and capital P at the end of of a jocular statement, people take what was obviously meant to be a joke seriously.

If this case does not get overturned, I am going to smear dog poop all over the judges house :P

But seriously, it is rather scary that a statement made in jest can possibly be judged to be a threat by the courts.

zackoz said...

Surely there is more background to this?

Was there actual evidence that he had planned to blow anything "sky high"? Or is that not even needed?

Note the judge's phrase "in the times in which we live". That implies he has bought the Bush/ Blair /Howard panic-mongering that we are facing unusual or unprecedented threats "in the times in which we live", as if we are any more threatened than any other age (WWII? Cold War?)

Russell Blackford said...

Jack of Kent has published the actual (short) judgment. It's in one of the links I gave.

Eamon Knight said...

It seems like a stupid thing to do, given that the authorities are more-or-less obliged to investigate all "threats" (ie. they can't summarily dismiss this or that one as a joke). But having found it was just a stupid joke, it seems like something along the lines of a misdemeanour for mischief would be the maximum appropriate penalty, not full criminal prosecution.

Anonymous said...
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tildeb said...

Who will save us from literalists?

Kirth Gersen said...

"A person is guilty of an offence if he— (a) sends by means of a public electronic communications network a message or other matter that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character; or (b) causes any such message or matter to be so sent."

Surely I must be misreading this -- from the way it looks, if send a somewhat inappropriate personal email to a friend (i.e., "a message of an obscene character"), I'm suddenly a criminal of some kind? Surely that can't be correct.

Robert N Stephenson said...

It is too easy to create opinion based on limited understanding of source materials.

But, as soon as you mention terrorist like acts in the UK you are done for.

Why? Unlike Australia or even the USA the UK has been dealing with terrorist attacks for many, many years. Remember the IRA bombings, remember bus bombings?

Like it or not, it is a country that cannot take any mention of this type as a joke. Laughing something off can get people killed, as history shows in this country.

It isn't the law that is at fault, it is more state of the world we have created for ourselves

Russell Blackford said...

Kirth, I haven't read the whole Act. Perhaps there's a defence in the situation you describe. But perhaps not. It'd be worth clicking on and having a look.

Kirth Gersen said...

I'll look it over when I get a chance. But lest we think all laws are somehow reasonable, here's an amusing list (even if unsubstantiated) from Stateside:


Unknown said...

"They" are intimidated by our new overwhelming freedom via the internet.
They have turned us into "terrorists" so that we will think we are fighting a just war.

I go back and forth between wanting to stay grossly connected (via facebook and google) and wanting to sink into dark web.