Paul Chambers was prosecuted and convicted for telling a bad joke.
He now has a criminal record.
Below is a guest blogpost on this disgraceful case by his partner, the former journalist who tweets and blogs as CrazyColours
You can donate to Paul's appeal fund here. Please do.
I was surprised, albeit flattered, that Jack of Kent asked me to do a guest spot on his blog. I should warn you though, that I have no legal training - so you won't find any fresh legal insights into the case of Paul Chambers vs the CPS. But I can talk about my experience.
I am CrazyColours. During the trial, the fact that I hid my true identity was used to highlight the transparency of Paul's twitter account and the fact he used his real and full name. Because if his threat was a real one, he'd have been anonymous, would he not? Whereas, I keep my real identity secret, not so I can threaten to blow up airports without personal consequence; but so I cannot be judged by employers, my father and the head of the industry in which I worked (who followed a twitter account I had under my own real name), for my "fine line" sense of humor and profane hyperbolic venting.
I "met" @pauljchambers on twitter more than a year ago now. We seemed to have the same sense of humor, and a friendship developed fairly quickly. Fast forward a year, and after meeting at a tweet-up in London, he'd planned to come and stay with me in Northern Ireland. Flights were booked and we were counting down the days, excited and nervous. It wasn't a blind date, as some newspapers have reported, although we did expect his trip to result a relationship. You know the type... boy tweets girl, girl tweets boy, boy gets arrested for a hyperbolic outburst at the extreme weather conditions.... no?
When Paul was arrested, we'd been in the middle of a text conversation. Paul, being the prolific tweeter/texter that he is, always replied almost immediately. But this time, I heard nothing from him for hours. This was not usual. I called and left an answerphone message for him. I believe that in the message I joked that I was going to hijack a plane - the police, unbeknown to me, had his phone at this time. They mustn't have listened to the message, or I'd have been arrested too.
It started getting quite late, and I still hadn't heard from Paul when I went to bed. I didn't know what to think. Trying to push the possibility that something was really wrong to the back of my mind, I told myself that his phone was broken. I try not to worry about things unless I know there is definitely something to worry about.
A call woke me at around 11 that night. It was Paul. I could tell by the tone of his voice immediately that something was very wrong. He said he'd been arrested under terror legislation. In my sleepy state, it was hard to take in. I thought it was a wind up. Then I thought that he must have changed his mind about me, and about coming over to see me, and this was an elaborate and over-the-top excuse to get out of it. He had to convince me he was telling the truth, and in the end I believed him.
After the call, I began to panic. I know I retweeted the tweet he was arrested for. Was I going to be arrested too? He'd told the police he was coming to see me - would they think we were both colluding to bomb an airport? Ridiculous paranoia - but this was a pretty ridiculous situation. I looked at my peacefully sleeping five year old - what would happen to him if I was arrested? Should I make provisions for him to be looked after just in case? I had a panic attack. Not something I'm prone to - but I was afraid, worried and confused.
I went onto twitter and contacted a journalist I'd "met" through there - Jason Walsh. I told him what had happened and asked him what to do. He couldn't believe it either. After some advice to keep quiet for now, he promised me that he'd help all he could. And he did. Realising that this was an issue beyond the unfortunate first person to be arrested for it, he ensured the story that subsequently broke was more about the misguided arrest, and less about Paul, which we were grateful for. He also was a valuable friend to have, and reassured both of us constantly over the coming weeks.
Then twitter found out, and the prominent reaction was one of disbelief and disgust. A small minority of people said Paul got what he deserved and branded him foolish (to put it lightly). People feeling they had a right to make personal attacks because this was something now in the public arena, was difficult to take. We both learned to grow a thicker skin.
I came to see Paul a month later and went with him to the police station to find out if he was being formally charged. The general consensus by pretty much everyone, including myself, was that he wouldn't be. When Paul emerged from the office in the police station and said, "I've been charged," I was incredulous. We sat down with his solicitor of the time straight after, and his solicitor had to look up what he was charged under - Section 127 of the Communications Act, 2003 - an obscure and unknown law as he described it - and then advised Paul to plead guilty. It was absolute he said, like speeding. Unless Paul denied writing and sending the tweet, he was guilty.
Paul had been suspended from work since his arrest, where he had progressed for nine years. In my opinion, he handled everything exceptionally well, better than I would have. But he later admitted to having very dark days, his life was suddenly completely out of his control and his chances of qualifying as an accountant, something he'd trained for for years, were gone. His family and friends, and myself, were very concerned about him.
Then Jack of Kent picked up on his story and blogged about it. And what a godsend that was! Suddenly there was hope that Paul didn't have to accept this. Judge Jonathan Bennett accepted Paul's change of plea to "not guilty" and Paul found another solicitor prepared to fight his corner with him.
The trial was on Monday. Paul and I travelled from Northern Ireland (where he'd spent the previous 3 weeks) and were hopeful of a positive outcome. On the day, nerves and emotions were running high. It was all down to the judge now, Paul's future was left entirely at his discretion. We hoped for common sense, at last.
I'd been in a court before, reporting on cases for a daily newspaper; but this was entirely different. Watching this trial just play out, passively, as I'd done many times before was suddenly very difficult. Many points were made by the prosecuting witness, the prosecuting solicitor and the prosecuting judge that I silently contested. It was incredibly frustrating.
The prosecuting witness, head of security at Robin Hood Airport was asked, since reporting Paul's tweet to the Special Branch, does he still continue to preform Internet searches on Robin Hood Airport? He answered affirmatively.
"Why then," I thought, "doesn't he report all the other threats about Robin Hood Airport?!" I know there have been hundreds of threats against it since, in protest of Paul's arrest. Of course, common sense dictates that subsequent threats were in fact in protest, and non-credible, but Paul's original tweet was also deemed non-credible. If he had a duty to report Paul's to the police, surely he had a duty to report the others? Or had the airport changed their security policy in the 48 hours since Paul's arrest and the start of the subsequent protest threats? Maybe they realised that common sense was something to be exercised in matters serious enough to destroy a person's career and life. One can hope!
The lack of understanding by the prosecution and the judge about twitter irked me, as did the pious attitudes towards Paul's hyperbolic, and sometimes profane tweets. It smacked of hypocrisy. Who hasn't communicated in a way which, out of context or in context, can't be described as menacing, obscene or threatening? Fuck. There - an obscene message, communicated electronically. Arrest me officer!
Before the verdict, the prosecution solicitor was heard saying he expected Paul would get acquitted. The prosecution did more to aid Paul's case than offend it in my opinion - something Paul's defence solicitor corroborated when he made the same point while addressing the judge.
It was for the prosecution to prove guilt with mens rea, not for Paul to prove his innocence. Paul spoke under oath, his good character was not contested and was used as evidence, so the judge SHOULD have had no other option but to take what he said about his lack of awareness and intent as read. Forgive my ignorance, as I said, I am not legally trained, but why testify under oath at all if the judge is going to simply dismiss it? Did the judge decide, against all evidence, that Paul lied under oath? Isn't that an offence in itself?
The judge delivered a guilty verdict. It almost amused me that the judge found him guilty because of the "context of times in which we live," and decided that any other form of context in twitter, Paul's timeline, his followers, his good character, and indeed common sense were completely irrelevant.
Then, the statement released after the trial from the CPS actually contradicted the prosecution evidence in court FROM THE CPS. The verdict just didn't make sense.
Since the verdict, there's been a public outcry on twitter and in the media. A fund has been set up for legal and appeal costs, and to date, the total stands at more than £4000. Paul, uncomfortable at accepting any money at all, realises that this must be fought, not only for himself, but for everyone else now at risk of similar prosecutions. The level of support he's received means he can't, in all conscience, just let it lie.
We fully expect to be able to get this verdict overturned. Many in legal circles believe this ruling to be misguided at best, and reckless and dangerous at worst. There are many legal points which are disputed, and although I can just about understand them, I won't repeat what Jack of Kent has already said in previous posts (not that I could if I tried).
The future for Paul is in a state of limbo. After losing his job over this, finding a new one is going to be difficult in today's tough climate. More so with a conviction. He has a mortgage to pay; financial ruin is a very real possibility. His career is over before it has begun. His good character has been compromised. For a tweet.
The media frenzy that has resulted out of his conviction, and all the busyness that goes with it, serves as a momentary welcome distraction to the fact that in front of him is an uphill struggle to rebuild his life and find a chink of security amid the uncertainty. He retains his sense of humour, pragmatism and humble attitude. I'm very proud of how he has dealt with everything, and I hope that EVENTUALLY, this is resolved sensibly and we can put it behind us, and carry on with our lives.
I also hope that in future I won't risk prosecution for making an exaggerated, sarcastic or humorous comment; how it is received or how it is meant, deemed completely irrelevant.
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