“Twitter joke trial” decision a victory for common sense, say experts

By Chris Lee

Paul Chambers, who in a “joke” tweet said he would blow Doncaster Robin Hood Airport “sky high” in January 2010, has seen his conviction for sending a “message of a menacing character” overturned by the Crown Court.

Judges found that there was “no evidence” to suggest that any of Mr Chambers’ followers or anyone who may have seen the tweet “found it to be of a menacing character or, at a time when the threat of terrorism is real, even minimally alarming”.

Mr Chambers had tweeted the following after his flight had been cancelled: “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!!”

The tweet itself wasn’t actually noticed by the airport until almost a week later, at which point it was reported to police who in turn called on Mr Chambers.

Communication breakdown

According to Hannah Rainford of digital agency Jellyfish, since the dawn of the Internet and the mobile age, tone of voice has created misunderstanding.

“When we’re having a face-to-face conversation with someone, we’re able to detect whether someone is joking or not from their body language. The same can be said for a telephone conversation; you can hear from the tone of someone’s voice whether they are joking or being sarcastic. With text and online communication, you’re unable to make these distinctions and it has led to many a discrepancy, such as the now infamous Twitter Joke Trial,” she told NMK. “The UK has notoriously tricky laws around free speech, libel, and threatening behaviour, particularly in relation to social networking. Navigating this complexity is a key challenge for all new media professionals.”

Legal position and best practice

According to Danielle van der Merwe and Katie Douglas, lawyers at international law firm Pinsent Masons, the Twitter Joke Trial is a reminder to social network users to exercise caution when tweeting what they may view to be a harmless joke.

“The DPP (Department of Public Prosecutions) did not have evidence that Mr Chambers’ tweet had caused a state of apprehension in any recipient or reader. In the future, there is no doubt that prosecutors will be more cautious about bringing such cases to trial, but if they have evidence that a state of apprehension has been caused through a menacing or offensive statement, then the position taken might be quite different,” they said.

According to Pinsent Masons, the nature of Twitter is that, as a public forum, the potential audience of a tweet is vast. A retweet may remove the original context of a joke such that the chances of someone feeling afraid or threatened may be increased. The growing number of similar cases serves as a reminder for all Twitter users to be aware that the UK has laws regulating the use of electronic communication networks such as Twitter to distribute grossly offensive, indecent, obscene and menacing messages.

Paul Chambers lost his job because of his tweet. Pinsent Masons recommend employers take a common sense approach to such cases, develop clear social media policies and guidelines to staff.

By having a written policy on “the acceptable use of social networking” at work Pinsent Masons said an organisation can:

• help protect itself against liability for the actions of its workers

• give clear guidelines for employees on what they can and cannot say about the company

• help line managers to manage performance effectively

• help employees draw a line between their private and professional lives

• comply with the law on discrimination, data protection and protecting the health and safety of employees

• set standards for good housekeeping – for example, for the use and storage of emails

• be clear about sensitive issues like monitoring and explain how disciplinary rules and sanctions will be applied

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