Monday, 10 May 2010

Paul Chambers: a Bad Joke and a Bad Prosecution

One day, Paul Chambers sent a "tweet" to his followers on Twitter; it was a joke which came out of frustration:

"Crap! Robin Hood Airport is closed. You've got a week... otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!"

It was perhaps not the funniest joke.

Indeed, it was in bad taste and really not at all funny.

But it was sent only to his followers who knew of his sense of humour.

No alarm or distress was caused.

However, someone then forwarded it to East Midlands Airport, who were also not alarmed or distressed, and then they in turn passed it on to the South Yorkshire Police who began an investigation for a "bomb hoax".

What would they do?

Perhaps a sensible word?

An application of common sense?

Paul was arrested and questioned on suspicion for the "bomb hoax" offence under the Criminal Law Act 1977.

The case was passed to the Crown Prosecution Service.

The role of the CPS is to see if there is sufficient evidence for a realistic prosecution and to then determine whether such a prosecution was in the public interest.

And what happened next was, in my view, an outrage.

(I have detailed and evidenced the following here and here.)

The CPS realised that they did not have sufficient evidence for the bomb hoax offence under the 1977 Act, that is the actual legislation dealing with supposed bomb hoaxes.

But the CPS were going to prosecute him anyway, as it was in the public interest to do so.

The problem would be that there would need to be an offence.

Thankfully, the CPS cannot (or at least should not) just prosecute someone in the "public interest" without an offence.

So some bright spark came up with section 127 of the Communications Act 2003.

This makes it an offence for a person to send a "menacing" message over a public telecommunications network.

It is a rarely used offence - there is no case law - and it was certainly not understood when Paul first came to trial.

So, bizarrely and illiberally, he was charged and prosecuted

It seems that all those involved understood the section 127 offence to be a strict liability offence.

That is, the offence would be committed on sending the message, regardless of intention (or indeed context).

Accordingly, Paul was advised to plead Guilty, which he did.

This is when I got involved.

The blogposts which I have already linked to seemed to result in a change of solicitor and a change of plea to Not Guilty.

Such a "vacation" of a plea can only be done with the permission of the court.

And I have posted here the excellently-reasoned decision of the court to allow Paul to change his plea.

This meant Paul could plead Not Guilty and force the CPS to prove their case against him.

The trial is today.

Lets see what happens next.


No purely anonymous comments will be published; always use a name for ease of reference by other commenters.


Marjorie said...

Just saw from Crazycolours tweet that the verdict is Guilty

Phillip said...

That is simply astonishing! Are all our public services inhabited by jobsworths without an ounce of common sense between them?!

Susan said...

But it was sent only to his followers who knew of his sense of humour.

Was his profile set to "Private"?

JS said...

Does this mean Mr Brown is guilty of a similar offence for his offensive comments about Mrs Duffy?

These comments were broadcast and therefore, unintentionally, reached the recipient.

Joss said...

this is dispicable

gabrielle said...

Joke: Bad - Prosecution: Good

An Overstating-the-Obvious Reminder: This is 2010, not 1910.

In this century we all have to accept a different paradigm of social interaction. If there were no 9/11, no global terrorists bent on blowing up everything and anyone not aligned with their fanatical beliefs, we could all continue to make 20th century jokes about violence, about personal bullying and threats. We'd think of them as unpleasant, but innocuous, ha ha.

In the real world, however, those in charge of protecting the clueless cannot afford to live anachronistically. They are the ones who are required to stay in 2010 and make the unpopular decisions to keep people safe! It should not be surprising that they eschewed "common sense" in favor of prosecution in order to make Paul Chambers essentially an example.

E.g., in the United States last week, a car bomb explosion in NYC was foiled. When the news hit the media, no one's first thought was, "Was that a joke? Who would want to bomb Times Square?" Back in 1953, it would have been an initial thought. But -- again -- it's 2010 and people around the world, especially Americans, are more knowledgeable about what is at stake. There is less a bluebird act-and-speak-recklessly approach to life and more of a hawk's vigilance-and-accountability approach. We can be happy, but with an awareness of the consequences of our words and actions.

Chambers' guilty sentence is simply another reminder that this is 2010... and that we are all expected to grow up, to be more mature, more sophisticated -- as a people -- than we used to be.

Adam said...

Wow. This is ridiculous. I'm shocked. I don't know what else to say!

Manic Expressive said...

Remind me to stop writing ANYTHING on the internet.

Wow, this hurts my head. It's rather unbelievable, and very scary.

Vinod Tonangi said...

Not only was this in bad taste, but it was utterly stupid. He should be happy he doesn't do any jail time. A threat is a threat - even if it is a joke, how can someone tell the difference? They don't know your mental history from a tweet.

Jacky said...

Pardon my onexperience but what if you are anonymous twitterer with a generic name like "Jacky"? can you be found out?

Anonymous said...

Was the person who forwarded the joke also investigated? It seems to follow that the tweet-forwarder was actually more involved in "inducing...a false belief that a present in any place" than was Mr. Chambers.

Anonymous said...

"It is a rarely used offence - there is no case law"
To me "no case law" means it's *never* been used. True?

Gwenhwyfaer said...

So gabrielle, your argument is - what, that freedom of speech is obsolete? This isn't about consequences, it's about someone whose freedom of expression has been ruthlessly trampled on by a justice system desperate to make an example out of everyone it can possibly get its hands on. It's also a prima facie violation of ECHR art.10 - there's no way that even the broadest possible interpretation of section 2 could have been envisaged to apply to a frustrated bloke mouthing off to his mates at an airport!

I'll say just this - people with your mindset do us all far more damage than any number of Al Qaeda operatives in cockpits. They only want to kill some of us - but you want to lock us all in prison forever. said...

Absolutely unbelieveable in this day and age.
You can bet there are going to be people going back over their 'tweets' wondering if they've said anything that could be construed the same way.
I still can't quite believe what I'm hearing. It's a joke in itself.

Nuff Said said...

What would happen if we all sent similar tweets? Would we all be prosecuted, or would the context mean they wouldn't be seen as genuinely "menacing"? If the latter, surely Paul could argue in the context he sent his tweet, it too wasn't menacing... It would at least make the law look like the ass it is. How many people are up for it?

BenSix said...

Gabrielle writes...

Chambers' guilty sentence is simply another reminder that this is 2010... and that we are all expected to grow up, to be more mature, more sophisticated -- as a people -- than we used to be.

Yes, mature enough to know that when someone "threatens" to blow up an airport that he wants to use - over twitter - he's liable to be yanking chains. Jeez.

gabrielle said...


I realize this issue seems regional, but the fact that it involves an international airport -- however much of an overreaction it actually was -- made it global: people in other countries (including myself) don't want to think that any threat against Robin Hood Airport, however innocuous, or exaggerated, was overlooked, or worse, dismissed when they come flying in... We just don't want to be thinking that could be possible...

On the other hand, I can understand the freedom of speech concern. I am an American citizen and unfamiliar with the British constitution, or the framework of your free speech, but here in the States, the extent of the power and nuance of the freedom of speech has always been debated. (I think it's an organic topic that's common in a free society.) Thus far, in our 200+ years, we've determined that although forming anti-government militia groups is considered freedom of speech, slander and libel is not (unless, of course, it is aimed at an elected government official, which is essentially ourselves, since we ARE our government)! We've determined also that if one's speech poses a danger to others, it is not a protected freedom. For instance,you're probably familiar with the "Fire!" analogy. One is not free to yell "fire!" in a crowded building when there is no fire because that could lead to unnecessary chaos and injury, or death, which would be infringing on the individual rights of others to their "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" as outlined in our Declaration of Independence. Thus, similar speech in the form of threats, veiled or otherwise, that could likely infringe on those rights would also not be considered a protected freedom.

That's the American interpretation. I guess each of our countries has to work out these things to its own satisfaction.

gabrielle said...

Manic Expressive and

All tweets are now being archived in the Library of Congress, USA -

Manly Artichokes said...

Am I missing a point here?

Surely Paul Chambers is guilty of sending a menacing message if he was sending it to Robin Hood Airport. As it was, he sent it to his twitter followers. That being the case, while his tweet could be observed by airport employees it was clear that he wasn't intending for them to read it.

Adam said...

This is Britain. We extract urine out of any and every situation that exists.

I simply cannot believe what has happened, has happened to this poor man.

Gabrielle - do you use twitter at all ? You do realise there are people posting tweets as "Al Qaeda" with a profile photo of Osama himself.
With this being 2010, should this be allowed ? Should the Osama fraud not be hunted down in case he is using reverse reverse psychology in code perhaps ?

Rant over